A Report on Non-Ionizing Radiation

Cell Sites as Terrorist Targets

Site Data Should Be Kept Secret, Says Industry

February 16, 2005

It was embarrassing watching the cell phone industry shoot itself in the foot yesterday. The scene was a public hearing at the New York City Council in downtown Manhattan on a proposal to maintain and make available a list of all new cell phone antenna sites. Predictably, the mobile phone operators oppose the bill (Intro. No.149-A) and the citizen groups are backing it.

Jane Builder, a manager at T-Mobile, called the proposal “anti-business” and “anti-technology,” but there was another reason she did not even want to discuss in a public forum —the security issue. Though Builder kept mum, she had brought along Kathryn Condello who had no problem raising the specter of a terrorist attack on the city’s critical infrastructure. “Since September 11, 2001, we live in a different world,” said Condello. If the bill becomes law, she warned, it would provide “a blueprint for sabotage” with the potential of devastating the City of New York’s telecommunications. Condello was also issuing this overly dramatic —and spurious— warning on behalf of Cingular, Nextel and Sprint.

There was something quite vile about sitting there, only a short distance from the site where the World Trade Center towers once stood, listening to a lobbyist use the 9/11 attacks to further the industry’s economic interests. City Council Member Peter Vallone Jr., the chief sponsor of the bill, berated Condello for using scare tactics. But, in fact, Condello was not scaring anyone, just tossing the industry’s credibility out the window. No one believed her and, odds are, few will believe the industry when, at a second hearing to be held later this week, it will no doubt dismiss the health issue. (Speakers were actively discouraged from addressing RF health effects at yesterday’s hearing.)

The whole terrorism argument is bogus. Anyone who wants to attack a cell tower can easily spot them around the town. But surely there are much more critical telecom targets than some cell phone antenna on top of an apartment building in Astoria. What Condello neglected to mention is that such information is available for a relatively small fee. Tower Maps has 224,817 (at last count) antenna sites in its database. You can find all the towers in a given county for $500.

For years, detailed information on cell phone antennas in a number of European countries has been available for free on the Internet (see MWN, M/J02, p.11). For instance, in the U.K. the Office of Communications maintains the Sitefinder database, which not only gives the location of mobile phone towers but also their height, frequency and output power as well as the operating company. The Swiss database also includes radio and TV transmitters, which typically broadcast at much higher power levels. Other countries either already have or are developing their own information systems. Some are even working on providing real-time radiation levels near certain mobile phone towers on the Internet.

The Vallone bill is hardly a draconian proposal. It does not even require the cataloguing of the thousands of existing cell tower sites in New York City. But it’s a start —a small step towards giving the public the information it has every right to have.