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Mon, Feb 23, 2004 - Page 12 News List

3G base stations facing resistance from the Swedes

AFP , STOCKHOLM

Swedes have had a long love affair with mobile phones, but now they are worrying that new 3G mobile technology might be bad for their health and the environment.

The health factor is an extra problem for telecom operators trying to roll out a new generation of mobile phones.

Operators are slowly overcoming financial and technical snags in the gigantic undertaking to build new base stations to carry third-generation (3G) mobile-phone services.

But they still face stubborn resistance from Swedes who fear that the new transmitters may be harmful to their health and also object that they are unsightly.

The universal mobile telecommunications system (UMTS), also known as third generation or 3G, is designed to provide e-mail, high-speed Internet surfing and live sound and image broadcasts to compatible handsets.

Operators have promised to set up a network covering nearly 100 percent of the Swedish population, which involves the construction of 8,400 base stations, or masts, across the country. But local authorities have authorized less than 60 percent of them.

Old-fashioned red tape explains a big chunk of the missing approvals, but the slow response also reveals a determination of many citizens to keep their region a transmitter-free zone.

This includes the city of Trelleborg, on Sweden's southernmost tip, which wants not a single base station to be built there.

Defying the central government, Trelleborg said it wants "satisfactory assurances" about health risk from radiation and will not change its mind, despite government pressure and court action from regional authorities.

Whether Trelleborg remains a blank spot on the 3G map will depend on "whether the legal system will accept the municipal decision, or declare it invalid," Magnus Axelsson, spokesman for Swedish telecommunications authority PTS, said.

And the defiant city is not alone, as Swedes sign petitions against 3G or even take to outright sabotage, such as last year's destruction of a newly-erected 72m-high mast in Sotenaes, in southern Sweden.

But scientists at the official Swedish Radiation Protection Authority (SSI) are adamant that the protests for health reasons are misguided.

"Our position is very definitely that the base stations, the antennae, pose no radiation protection problem," Lars Mjoenes, SSI coordinator for natural and non-ionizing radiation, said.

Mjoenes acknowledged that mobile phones themselves may pose a health risk, and said that Swedes are wise to use their handsets with earphones while keeping the phone itself tucked away in a bag or pocket.

This is so widespread that busy Stockholm streets can sometimes appear like scenes from a lunatic asylum, with hundreds of people apparently talking to themselves, sometimes gesticulating to make a point as they stroll along.

But the base stations themselves are a different story, Mjoenes said.

"You can never get a serious scientist to say that something is harmless, but research shows that radiation from the stations is extremely low," he said.

Grassroots protesters, however, mistrust the official line, believing that the Swedish government is riding roughshod over health concerns to help boost the fortunes of national telecom champion Ericsson, which makes mobile phone networks.

"The government wants Sweden to be a shop window for Ericsson. If it works here, then other countries will buy the technology. But if Sweden says `no,' then it's the death sentence for Ericsson. They will not be able to sell," said Jesper Sandahl, who owns a small farm near the small city of Goetene in southern Sweden, and who has been campaigning against the building of 3G-masts.

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