Telephone Masts: Statements.

Tuesday, 28 April 1998

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 155 No. 6

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Minister of State at the Department of Public Enterprise (Mr. Jacob): Information on Joe Jacob Zoom on Joe Jacob I welcome the opportunity to address Senators on this important issue [326] this evening and, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy O'Rourke, I thank Senators for their forthcoming contributions.

The need for this debate is obvious. It has arisen as a result of concerns being expressed by a number of elected representatives, community groups and individuals in regard to the possible effects on health of the erection of mobile phone towers, MMDS masts and other communications infrastructure.

The Government is determined to ensure that the underlying health and safety issues relating to these technologies are debated and that the genuine concerns being felt in the community are expressed openly and responded to meaningfully by the authorities involved. To this end, the Minister recently co-hosted a conference in Dublin Castle on the health aspects of mobile telecommunications technology in the community. The conference represented a joint effort by my Department, the Department of Health and Children and the Department of the Environment and Local Government. I assure Senators that the three Departments and the Government as a whole are aware of the very real concerns being expressed by people throughout the country.

In the Minister's opening address to the conference, she made it clear that the Government is open to further suggestions in regard to any action which may need to be taken, the manner in which it should move forward on the issues outlined and the objectives which may need to be set out.

Senators will also be aware of recent meetings of the Joint Committee on Public Enterprise where detailed submissions were received from all interest groups, including a wide range of community interests, on the issue. All interested Departments, including my own, participated fully in these sessions. The committee will be reporting to the Houses of the Oireachtas on the matter in the short term. I understand that it will be including in its report recommendations on how the Government should deal with the issue. I want to assure the House that the Government will take very careful note of the committee's recommendations in this area.

In my address to the House this evening, I want to highlight the background to the current debate as well as the major issues of concern. The growth of the mobile telecommunications sector in Ireland is directly related to the liberalisation of the sector across the EU as a whole. In Ireland, Eircell commenced its analogue service in 1985 and began the provision of GSM services in 1993. The process of issuing a licence to a second mobile operator was begun in 1995 in the light of a decision by the EU Commission that the provisions of the Treaty required the liberalisation of the markets for mobile telephony.

Subsequently, the transposition into Irish law of EU Directive 96/2 as SI 123 provided for licensing of a second operator in Ireland. The directive provides that the number of licences for mobile services can only be limited by the availability [327] of radio frequency spectrum. Today, the radio frequency spectrum set aside for mobile telephony in Ireland can accommodate at least one, and possibly two, additional operators in addition to Eircell and Esat Digifone.

At the end of March, the Eircell analogue service has 189,000 customers and its GSM service had 231,000 customers. Esat Digifone launched its GSM service in March 1997 and now has 113,000 subscribers. This gives a total for the Irish market of 533,000 subscribers which represents just under 15 per cent of the total population. The leading market in the EU in terms of overall subscriber numbers is Italy with a total of more than 12 million subscribers or 21 per cent of the population. The leading EU market in terms of penetration is Finland with a penetration of more than 40 per cent. Other penetration figures include Sweden at 37 per cent while the UK is at the same level as Ireland. The total number of subscribers in the EU currently stands at approximately 53 million people.

Much attention has focused on the planning issues related to mast construction and operation. I must emphasise that responsibility for planning matters lies with local authorities, with An Bord Pleanála on appeal and, at the policy level, with my colleague, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government.

At the time of the commencement of the roll-out of their network for the provision of digital GSM services, Eircell enjoyed an exemption from a requirement to obtain planning permission for the erection of new masts for a period of six months from May to November 1994. My information is that approximately 200 Eircell sites have been erected on foot of this exemption.

The erection of a telecommunications mast is considered to be development within the meaning of the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act, 1963, and therefore, requires planning permission unless specifically exempted under the Local Government (Planning and Development) Regulations, 1997. The decision to grant or not grant planning permission in any particular case is a matter for the planning authority and, in the event of a appeal, An Bord Pleanála. The Department of the Environment and Local Government issued guidelines on telecommunications antennae and support structures in 1996 following a public consultation process. The guidelines are intended to assist planning authorities, An Bord Pleanála, operators of mobile telecommunications services and the general public by providing guidance on dealing with telecommunications antennae and support structures.

The visual impact of masts is acknowledged in the guidelines as being among the more important of the considerations that a planning authority will have to take into account in deciding on a planning application. The guidelines point to the need to have due regard to sensitive landscape and sites. In order to reduce the number of masts, the guidelines advocate the sharing [328] of masts. Planning authorities need to be satisfied that applicants for planning permission have explored this possibility. In order to support the policy of mast sharing, the provisions on exempted development were clarified. The Local Government (Planning and Development) Regulations, 1997, amend the existing exempted development regulations by including two new classes of exempted development — the attachment to an existing radio mast of antennae for mobile telephony and the replacement of an existing mast. These provisions are confined to operators licensed under Section 111 of the Postal and Telecommunications Services Act, 1983, and are subject to a number of important restrictions on size, number and type of antennae.

The licences granted to both Eircell and Esat Digifone are very similar in content and set out specific conditions relating to the development of the operator's network. They also provide that the licensee must ensure a minimum level of coverage.

The issue of the health effects of communications masts has already been the subject of much research internationally. A 1996 review which was carried out by the International Commission on Non-ionising Radiation Protection, who are advisers to the World Health Organisation on these matters, concluded that there is no substantive evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to levels of non-ionising radiation at levels at or below those set in the 1988 guidelines issued by the International Radiation Protection Association. Compliance with the IRPA guidelines is a condition attached to all telecommunications licences for mobile telephony services issued in Ireland.

Further research in the area has been proposed recently in a report commissioned by the European Commission. The Department of Public Enterprise will be monitoring developments to ensure that the most up to date standards are applied to emissions in this country.

The licences issued to Esat and Eircell also include a range of provisions specifying technical and safety standards to be observed in the provision of their service. These licence provisions conform with the best international practice. Specifically, the licensee is obliged to take all reasonable measures in relation to the provision of the service to ensure the safety of its employees, its customers and the public, and to ensure that non-ionising radiation emissions from the network are within the limits specified by the guidelines published by the International Radiation Protection Association.

The Garda Síochána operates a telecommunications network for the purpose of its own internal communications that comprises some 700 masts located at Garda stations around the country.

In the second half of 1996, Esat Digifone identified the strategic value of using the network for siting some of its own telecommunications antennae. At the time Digifone was trying to [329] complete the roll out of its network to the extent required by its licence obligations. The Esat Digifone/Garda deal was eventually signed in April 1997 covering a total of 459 sites of which about 200 will be covered by the planning exemption brought into effect in early 1997. The remainder will require planning permission.

I want to turn briefly to two issues which have been the cause of particular debate and comment. In relation to the monitoring of emissions from masts there has been some concern expressed at the absence of a comprehensive system for emissions monitoring. The legal position is that a provision relating to emission levels is contained in the licences issued to mobile phone companies and MMDS operators. In the future I understand that such a provision will be included in all licences for communication services which make use of radio frequency spectrum. These provisions are based on the most up to date international standards and can be adjusted over time if that is necessary.

Responsibility for telecommunications licences lies with the Director of Telecommunications Regulation appointed under the Telecommunications (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1996. The director is an independent body and carries out a range of important functions in relation to the regulation of the communications sector. I note from the director's recent appearance before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Enterprise that she is aware of the concerns felt by many in relation to this issue and has taken the first steps in putting such a system in place. The director has recently published details on the monitoring system to be employed together with the results of an initial study.

The smooth operation of the planning process necessitates that the operators take a more proactive role in disseminating information in relation to proposed developments for the benefit both of planners and local communities. This principle should, in my view, also apply in the case of developments which are exempt from the legal requirements for planning permission.

A number of issues may need to be looked at in terms of the relationship between the communications companies and the local communities, such as the provision of clear and timely information to local communities by communications companies, the ensuring of adequate consultation at a local level and the implementation by operators of arrangements in relation to monitoring of emissions. The Government will be keeping a very close eye on these developments.

In conclusion, I thank Senators for their attention. It is intended that their views will feed into the Government's consideration of the issue. I can assure Senators that the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, intends to address their concerns with Government in the light of the report which both Houses will soon receive from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Enterprise.

[330]Mr. Manning: Information on Maurice Manning Zoom on Maurice Manning I welcome the Minister to the House. It is always a pleasure to have him in the House and I hope the debate will be as civilised as I heard him tell his civil servants Seanad debates usually are. I hope it will, at least, throw some light on what has become an increasingly heated subject in recent times; I have a suspicion that I may find myself in a minority position on this issue.

This issue calls, most of all, for information and for hard factual analysis. It is clear that there is a great deal of concern, some of it expressed emotionally, throughout the country. I live in an area which probably has more masts per square foot than any other part of the country so I cannot be accused of saying “not in my back yard.” I will share whatever dangers may or may not come from masts.

It is important to place this debate in context. We have lived through a revolution in telephonic methodology and there is no going back. Mobile phones are one of the main methods of communication in the modern world. We all remember with a degree of amusement how, when programme managers first made their appearance in Leinster House, one of their distinguishing characteristics was the mobile phone. Stories were told of programme managers phoning each other from different ends of the restaurant so that they would be seen to have mobile phones.

In a few years we have moved to a position where there are 500,000 mobile phones in use. People find them extremely useful in looking after teenagers going out at night and for keeping in touch. They have almost become an indispensable tool. Thankfully it is still possible to tell somebody with whom one does not want a conversation that the line is breaking down or that the reception in the area is bad. They have become an integral part of everyday life in a way that none of us could have foreseen a couple of years ago. Before long there will be more mobile than fixed line phone users.

The fact that mobile phones are a worldwide phenomenon should, in some ways, provide reassurance that what is happening here is not unique. We have a chance to learn from the experience of other countries and to measure our best practice against what is expected elsewhere. Worldwide there are approximately 250 GSM network operators in 109 countries, most of which are using technology to a common standard.

One of the better results of the arrival of mobile phones was the introduction of competition. All of us have benefited from the fact that Telecom Éireann, hitherto a protected monopoly, has been obliged to face the reality of competition. It did not do so with much good grace. Those of us who dealt with Telecom Éireann in the past over excessive charges, etc., often came up against a great deal of arrogance. We knew people had been overcharged but it was very difficult to get Telecom to admit it. Telecom has moved into the real world, partly because of competition, and the consumer in terms of prices and [331] better service has been the main beneficiary. We are probably lucky that we introduced competition in mobile phone services comparatively late — we were the second last EU country to licence a second mobile operator.

When the independent licence was given to Esat there were strict conditions attached to it. It is important to emphasise that one of the conditions imposed by the State on the independent operator was to put in place a nationwide network within a very short space of time. Sufficient masts had to be in place to provide a service for the vast majority of the population within a very tight timetable. The State fined Esat £1 million for not having enough masts in place to meet the first phase covered by the licence. As the Minister pointed out in his interesting speech, Esat did not have the very questionable exemption from planning permission which Telecom had for a six month period and during which many installations were erected which might not have passed strict planning criteria. Esat had to go through the planning process and every application went through the full rigours of that process, taking years in some cases.

Esat has also been faulted for using existing structures. However, this was in line with the guidelines issued by the Department of the Environment and Local Government which advised planners to force mobile operators to use existing structures in order to prevent proliferation of new, stand alone masts. Esat and Telecom Éireann have been using existing structures as a first choice option. This has meant using ESB, RTÉ, Garda, health board and local radio masts with new masts accounting for only 30 per cent of the total. There is no going back from this position.

The debate is concerned with the issue of whether these masts pose a danger to health or safety. This is the only concern of Members: we will not question the extent of the revolution which is taking place. At the heart of the controversy is a genuine fear among many sensible people that there is a health hazard. Nobody seems clear as to what the hazard is. All sorts of experts feed the fears and sometimes provide information that is, perhaps, accurate. Some people question the credentials of some experts. However, I know nothing of their credentials as I do not know the experts or anything about them. I accept they are speaking from a position of good faith.

I hold no brief for anybody in this controversy. I have great regard for Esat. Many of its founding members were former students of mine and I have watched their progress with much pride as they built the company into a world leader in its field. It is one of the finest companies to emerge over the past 30 years. It has introduced competition to the market and has shown that a young Irish company can compete with world leaders with great success. The people in Esat are committed to the country; it is an Irish rather than a [332] multinational company and the people running it live here and must be responsible for the consequences of what is done on their behalf.

The issue of fears is a scientific question which can either be resolved or not. The fears are either justified or unjustified. We are not talking about something which modern scientific evidence does not allow us resolve. Masts are either dangerous or not — it is this simple. I listened carefully to the submissions last week to the Committee on Public Enterprise and Transport. Like the Minister, I await the findings of the committee. I was surprised by some of the things said, especially some of the point scoring, something I do not intend speaking about in this debate which is concerned with health and safety. The most constructive contribution was that of Esat which offered everybody a means of resolving the problem. The onus should be on the Director of Telecommunications Regulation to put in place independent procedures for the independent monitoring of emissions from equipment used in radio based technologies, including mobile phones. The only way the public can have confidence that this monitoring is being carried out impartially is if it is done on a completely independent basis. The person in a position to do this is the Director of Telecommunications Regulation. She is in a position to regulate the industry and I would be astonished if assessment of health consequences were not an integral part of her function. By statute, by the nature of her job and indeed by her personality she is independent and in a position to provide independent monitoring in which the public can have confidence.

This begs a question which Senator Gallagher posed on the way into the House, namely, whether people any longer believe anybody in an official position on such matters. In the past official bodies have given assurances that certain things were safe when they were unsafe. Nonetheless, the Director of Telecommunications Regulation is in a position to do what I have suggested. She has a position of total impartiality and the capacity to appoint people who will be internationally accepted. Then, at least, the debate can begin from a detached viewpoint, with concrete information at our disposal.

The State must become more involved. It is not good enough for it to allow independent operators and Telecom into the field, derive revenue from it and at the same time almost stand back from it. The State has an obligation to provide accreditation to experts, whose bona fides will be accepted, who can be sent out on the basis of necessity to the various areas where there are controversies. This will not be the hiring of experts by one side or the other, but the State saying that it regards these people, irrespective of whether they come from Ireland or elsewhere, as being impartial. That will take away the present issue, the point raised by Mr. Maloney last week when he spoke of a cottage industry growing up around advisers who are available for a fee. I do not know if that is true, but if the State became [333] involved and stated it verified the credentials of this adviser, then at least doubts about the bona fides of the advisers would be removed.

I also believe that both the State and the companies need to become more actively involved in deciding on the health issue, and the Minister made reference to this. After all, it is the State which licenses radio-based technology. The State needs to let the public know that it is doing so in the belief that it is not harmful or injurious. When issuing a licence, the State must be sure that what it is doing is not harmful or injurious. Likewise, the companies involved, whose bottom line is profit, must also take pains to assure the public that what they are doing is not in some way going to be injurious to the health of people involved.

This debate will be useful if we can get from the Minister, and the report of the committee, agreement on independent assessment of what is at stake. None of us in this House is an expert. None of us has the training or the background. We are all aware of the fears, but none of us is in an independent position. What we need is independent assessment at the highest level. People may not believe it, but at least it will be available. As far as is possible, it will be objective and scientific. Let us go ahead on that basis.

Mr. McGowan: Information on Paddy McGowan Zoom on Paddy McGowan I welcome this opportunity for Statements in the House. I have asked for this for some time. I welcome the Minister of State to the House also. He will be helpful, as is always the case.

I am pleased that Minister O'Rourke afforded an opportunity to those who were concerned about the future of Digifone masts to raise their concerns at a conference. I was also pleased about the meeting of the Joint Committee on Public Enterprise and Transport last week, which was called for by its Chairman, Deputy Doherty, and about all the expertise which attended it. That was useful and informative.

I agree with Senator Manning that we will not turn back the clock, but I disagree that the only issue is the health aspect of mobile telephones. That is not the matter in which I am interested. I am not qualified in that regard and many people who are making comments about the health risk are also not qualified to do so. My colleague, Senator Farrell, said to me when we met at Montrose that if there was any danger from radiation, etc., from mobile telephones, there would be nobody alive in Stillorgan. He was right and I must accept that. Therefore, I will not focus on the health aspect of it because I do not have the expertise or the knowledge.

I do not agree with Senator Manning. The matter was badly handled from the start. When Esat Digifone tendered for the licence, it had the best tender on paper, which did not include the use of telephone masts at Garda barracks. It was only after Esat Digifone was granted the licence that it started to negotiate for that. While I am not going to go back for political advantage, I have reservations like everybody else. Senator Manning's [334] party colleague, the then Minister and his colleague, went to much expense holding up the importance of sticking to the planning laws in County Clare when they stopped the development in the Burren which cost millions of pounds. Thereafter, we were to have strict planning regulations to which local authorities, State bodies and everybody would have to comply and that was accepted nationally without too much controversy.

I, as a long time member of a local authority, oppose totally the waiving of planning laws for any reason. I and all of my colleagues must comply with the planning laws. If somebody wants to build a small extension or a bathroom to their house, he or she must go to an architect, submit a planning application and conform to the letter of the law. For instance, the materials used, even to the extent of the colour of the roof tiles, must be correct.

Therefore, it is unacceptable to see a company which can be exempt from planning regulations. We can pad it as much as we like. Not only is the company exempt from the planning regulations, but it affects the security of Garda barracks. Most of the masts at Garda barracks are in the yard, garden or confines of the barracks. If one stops to think for a minute, it involves a security concern.

The average person believes it is wrong to exempt from planning laws whichever company was granted the licence in the first instance. Subsequently, for a reason nobody knows, the Government and the then Minister allowed that advantage to a company which had been successful already. Why? There are all kinds of allegations that big money changed hands. I do not know, but that innuendo remains unanswered. I listened carefully to the answer: that it would avoid covering the countryside with more masts. That would have been perfectly acceptable if it had been stated clearly when tenders were invited that it could happen, but that was not the case. The process must be seen to be fair and balanced because the public are pressed to comply with planning, waste, sewerage and environmental regulations. We live in an age when it must be seen to be done by the book. That is a major objection.

Esat Digifone stated in a letter to me that under S.I. No. 78 of 1997, it may change any existing telecommunications structure so long as it does not exceed the existing height and does not more than double the base width of the existing mast, and that this development in effect constitutes a mast upgrade or refurbishment.

Those are fine eloquent words. Whoever negotiated that is not as generous to Mr. John Bloggs who lives on the side of the mountain when he wants a bathroom extension. Those are extravagant words and that is extravagant legislation. The Minister, for whatever reason, decided not only to exempt the company from planning permission but to allow it to double the size of the base.

[335] I come from a county where there is a real problem. I had a deputation with the Minister for Justice, who recognised that we had a problem. Esat Digifone plan to put an aerial or aerials behind a Garda barracks in Castlefin on a mast which, before they began to extend it, was within ten feet of the back door of a private house and close to many houses and a school. Over 300 people, including the parents of children at the school, attended a meeting in Castlefin but their genuine concerns have not been addressed. The Minister recognises this is a serious problem and that there are no grounds for allowing Esat Digifone to double the size of the base of the mast, which is located close to local residents. This has been and will remain a major issue in Castlefin and in a number of other locations in Donegal.

The Minister said our comments would be taken into account when a new monitoring system was put in place. Nobody objected to the mast originally because Castlefin is two miles from the Border and the Garda Síochána needed the best security and modern telecommunications systems. I am in favour of developing the best technology for the Garda. I met the chief executive of British Telecom in the House last week and he told me he is planning to apply for a third licence in conjunction with the ESB. We all welcome competition, particularly if it results in a cheaper service.

I am a mobile telephone user so I do not sound sincere when I complain about telephone masts. I will not take this issue to court as some people did and had to pay the costs when they lost. I contacted my local authority, Donegal County Council, about the Esat Digifone mast at Castlefin Garda station. In its reply it stated:

I acknowledge receipt of your letter of 16th ult. regarding above and wish to advise that the measurements of the existing mast have been taken by the Council and any new developments will be looked at in the light of these measurements.

Donegal County Council is on the ball. Planning exemptions for telephone mast extensions will not be granted without a Government direction. I want a level playing pitch for everyone, whether it is a person building a bathroom to the side of his cottage at the top of Glenties or Esat Digifone.

I expect the support of the Minister and the Minister of State to ensure we get fair play. We cannot turn the clock back, but it is obvious that an injustice was done because those who applied for the licence in the first place were not told they could use the masts already erected on Garda barrack sites. However, that is water under the bridge. Esat Digifone has infringed on the people's rights and that must be rectified even if it means erecting a new mast. Esat Digifone did this to save money, but the school and private property must be taken into consideration.

[336] I appreciate the opportunity to express my views on this serious matter. We are not experts on the health hazards of such masts. I am concerned about the planning aspects and I want to ensure that everyone has a level playing pitch.

Mr. Gallagher: Information on Pat Gallagher Zoom on Pat Gallagher I am glad we have the opportunity to debate this issue. Senator Costello, Senator O'Meara and I tabled a motion last October on this issue and we were promised a debate during the last session. I am glad we are having it so early in this session.

It will be difficult to find a solution which will keep everyone happy. People want access to the most up to date technology and communications in every part of the country but they also want to be reassured, to the extent of seeking absolute indemnity, that nothing will go wrong. I do not know if that circle can be squared but we have an obligation to ensure that the best possible communications technology is available to people in every part of the country, regardless of their location, while also giving them every possible assurance.

In the review of the planning laws which the Minister for the Environment and Local Government is undertaking, I seek a repeal of the exemptions for any type of development, including the exemptions allowed in this regard. I appreciate the reasons why they might have seemed a good idea at the time, particularly when one considers the pressure to deliver services and allow new companies to operate in this area. However, experience has shown that the people are resistant to the effects of such exemptions. I agree with Senator McGowan that the planning exemptions should be removed.

We, as a country or in co-operation with other members of the European Union, must obtain an independent assessment of the health effects of microwave transmitters which are being erected on these masts throughout the country. That is what our motion, which has been on the Order Paper since last October, seeks to do. I realise it may not be possible for us as an individual state to commission wideranging research. However, given that the European Commission is looking at this issue, it should be possible to co-operate with the other 14 member states of the European Union to commission independent research.

It is difficult to win in such a situation. I remember being asked two years ago by a local community to assist in making representations to the council because it alleged that one company had infringed the planning laws by putting up an unauthorised structure for mobile telephone transmissions. When the council took action to ensure the law was complied with, I suffered a backlash from the owner of the land who was annoyed that he would not get rent from the particular company for the use of his property. We must do the best job we can in these circumstances. Impossible as it might seem, we must try to ensure that technology is available to everyone [337] while at the same time assuring them about the health risks.

I compliment the joint committee on its work and I look forward to its report. I was impressed with presentation given by the Director of Telecommunications Regulation to the committee last week. She pointed out the benefits of the massive increase in the use of radio for individual, industrial and commercial purposes in recent years. She enumerated those to include television, radio, cell phones, mobile cellular phones, cordless phones, radio navigation systems and equipment used in industry, medicine and commerce. Those of us who have been involved in upgrading emergency communication systems for the emergency service know how important that job is. I agree with many of Senator Manning's comments on how the office the Director of Telecommunications Regulation can be developed in this regard.

I was impressed with the submissions made by community groups to the committee last week. I can be objective on this because while there are concerns being expressed by communities in my constituency, none of the groups who made the presentation last week was from my constituency. It was obvious they had made a great effort, without the funding available to the major companies, to research and present their case. People may quibble with their evidence but they are equally entitled to quibble with the evidence presented by the companies which have major resources at their disposal.

I am not qualified to judge Professor Walsh of UCG, Professor Adey, Dr. Cherry, Dr. Stather, Dr. Goldsmith or anyone else mentioned in the submissions last week, but I accept they are all trying to approach this from an objective and a scientific point of view. We must find some way of ensuring this is assessed in an objective fashion and that the results of the assessment are put before the public when proposals are made at local level for developments in this area. Sufficient questions have been raised about the International Committee on Non Ionising Radiological Protection in the evidence we have heard to date to require the Government, individually or in co-operation with other EU member states, to seek an independent evaluation of the health evidence on this.

I accept that a committee has been set up in co-operation with the World Health Organisation and in association with the United Nations but, as I said to Senator Manning before the debate started, just because it is an international body of standing does not mean people will accept its results. The more official a body is these days, the less people will accept its findings. Also there is no such thing as genuine independence, everyone comes at an issue from some angle, but the public would be reassured if the Government took the step of commissioning independent research. I look forward to the Government, having listened to this debate and having received the report of [338] the joint committee, taking that step as people will be reassured by it.

There was a point made in the submission by the group from Carrick-on-Shannon with which I agree, a reference to a statement by Dr. Goldsmith of the Ben Gurion University in Israel that an assumption of innocence in respect of mobile phones and other types of radiation transmission is no longer tenable. That is the basis from which we must start. We have to prove that it is safe within standards which are being met.

The group from Donegal questioned the bona fides of Dr. Repacholi, whom I heard making an address to the Government conference in Dublin Castle some weeks ago. I cannot adjudicate whether his standing is adequate to come down on one side of this argument. This is something which could be answered by independent evaluation because, no more than I can challenge Professor Walsh or Dr. Repacholi, I cannot challenge any of the experts mentioned by the community groups last week. We must have the middle way of doing this and there is a duty on the Government to ensure this happens.

Standards have to be set and we have to make sure they are met. There is enough evidence to refuse to take the ICNIRP at face value. It is significant that the Swiss authorities have not accepted the ICNIRP regulations and recommended standards on the short wave transmitter which is being shut down there. If they have queries about the group, we are entitled to have queries as well. The independent health review could set standards which are more acceptable to the public. I agree the Office of the Director of Telecommunications Regulation is the most appropriate office to ensure standards are met. I was heartened to see the director outline to the committee last week the action which has already been taken in respect of how the process should be completely quickly and the results put into the public domain as quickly as possible.

I commend to the Minister and the Government a motion which was passed by Youghal UDC in County Cork which was sent to my local authority, Offaly County Council. It passed the same motion last week to the effect that it called on the Government to put in place a system of regular nationwide monitoring of microwave emissions from all sources of non-ionising radiation with the results available to the public. That would tie in with what I said earlier about independent assessment and the director ensuring the standards were complied with.

I agree with the points made about planning issues in the Minister's speech. In County Offaly the first local communities learn about proposals to erect masts in their areas are planning notices in the papers and the required planning notices appearing on the boundaries of the properties for which the application is being made. Esat and Eircell could do much more to reassure the public, to communicate with them, to inform them of their plans and listen to their concerns before any planning application is made. The Minister has [339] mentioned that a number of issues need to be examined in terms of the relationship between communications companies and the local communities. I endorse that sentiment. We have invited both companies to come and address the county council at its next meeting but that will not be enough. They must get out and talk to the people who will have these facilities in their areas.

The issues mentioned by the Minister included the provision of clear and timely information to local communities by these companies. I could not agree more. Secondly, adequate consultation at local level should be ensured. That is not happening. People are depending on their ability to object once a proposal has been made. If communication and consultation took place prior to the application being made, in some instances the community would accept the need for the mast and the safeguards promised. The companies may decide to go elsewhere in some cases, saving everybody concerned a great deal of trouble. If the exemptions on planning in this area were removed in this area the public would be further reassured. The Minster mentioned arrangements on the monitoring of emissions. The role of the Director of Telecommunication Regulation can be expanded in that area.

This matter will not be concluded with this debate. I thank the Minister for listening and reiterate the two main points of my argument — the exemption on planning should be removed in all cases and an independent health study, commissioned either by the Government or in co-operation other European governments, should be undertaken as quickly as possible and the results put before the public. That would provide a standard which could be stood over in public debate and which would benefit both the existing companies which are providing necessary mobile telephone services and the proposed third operator.

Mr. Bonner: Information on Enda Bonner Zoom on Enda Bonner I welcome the Minister of State although I am slightly disappointed that the Minister, Deputy O'Rourke, could not attend.

This is an important issue for many communities, particularly in rural areas. We, as public representatives, are sent to the Oireachtas to represent the opinions of people in our constituencies and to produce good legislation for their benefit. The telephone masts issue has arisen hard on the heels of the MMDS problem which has caused controversy in recent years. Many communities in Donegal are affected by mobile telephone masts. Senator McGowan referred to Castlefin. Two other communities succeeded, through consensus and discussion, in preventing Esat Digifone from erecting antennae on masts which it proposed to erect in Dore in Gweedore and in Derryreel outside Falcarragh. The way forward is through discussion, consultation and agreement.

[340] The Minister, Deputy O'Rourke, inherited this problem. I compliment her on what she has achieved on this issue during her short time in office. She has taken a number of steps to try to resolve the problem and reassure the public. In June 1997 the Director of Telecommunications Regulation was appointed and in March 1998 a conference on telephone masts was held in Dublin Castle, which I attended. In recent weeks, two meetings of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Enterprise and Transport debated the issue and I take some of the credit for that. I proposed to the Minister and to the chairman of the committee that, since the people who opposed the erection of telephone masts had insinuated that the experts at the conference favoured only one side of the argument, there should be an opportunity for both sides to give their views and to question each other on those views.

I learned a great deal from the conference in Dublin Castle. Initially it dealt with the effect of emissions from mobile telephones. Many of the people who attended that part of the conference left it with the impression that the conference was of no value to communities which were objecting to the masts. Later in the evening Mr. John McAuley, who works with Compliance Engineering Ireland in Ashbourne dealt comprehensively with the effect of emissions from masts. I was encouraged by his comments. He said that while he was happy that emissions from mobile telephone masts were well below the standards accepted by the World Health Organisation, he was not able to say whether the standards accepted by that organisation were safe.

With the exception of one, all the speakers at the conference, in the hour long summary and question and answer session at the end of the day, said the masts posed no real health hazard. However, they did agree there were other hazards such as stress and so forth caused by having such masts located in built up areas. All agreed there should be consultation and that, if possible, masts should not be located in urban areas.

The meetings of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Enterprise and Transport gave everybody an opportunity to put their case. During the first meeting Dr. Tom McManus, who appears to be well informed about this issue and who has enlightened me a great deal throughout the debate on it, said he believed there should be consensus and agreement on the location of masts. The Minister intends to introduce legislation on this issue in the autumn. I hope these views will be taken into consideration and that there will not be the same situation as occurred following the allocation of MMDS franchises when the views of certain communities were disregarded.

At last week's meeting of the joint committee the expert who has been advising the community groups appeared to water down his opposition which had been based solely on health considerations. He has introduced other considerations such as devaluation of homes and the destruction [341] of visual amenities. The only expert he quoted was at the Dublin Castle conference who opposed the masts for health reasons. In my view, the rest of the speakers at the conference were much more impressive than that speaker.

The other important development was the appointment of the Director of Telecommunications Regulation. The responsibility for ensuring the compliance of Esat Digifone and Eircell with the conditions of their licences and particular conditions in relation to non-ionising radiation emissions from their networks lies with the director. The office commenced in June 1997 with responsibility for licensing the use of radio frequencies for radio, telephony and broadcasting.

A standard provision is that all users of radio frequencies ensure that emissions are below limits specified by guidelines published by the IRPA in association with the World Health Organisation. The director has stated that she is undertaking comprehensive audits to ensure that Telecom Éireann, RTÉ, Eircell, Esat Digifone and the MMDS operators are below these accepted standards. Unfortunately, those who oppose the masts state that Forbairt, which is independent of the State, is not independent. The results of the audits carried out to date show that the telephone masts in Phibsboro and Dunshaughlin, the television mast at Three Rock and the MMDS mast in Naul are all below the accepted international standards.

Signals from telephone masts are becoming weaker as the years go by but the public only sees a proliferation of telecommunications masts throughout the country. Esat Digifone and Eircell have been weak in their public relations, in reassuring the public and discussing with it where masts should be located and in seeking agreement before the masts are installed.

Planning is another issue which has arisen during this debate. The erection of a mast, as a development, requires planning permission. However, the problem to date has arisen in respect of the co-location of existing masts. The Department of the Environment and Local Government issued guidelines on telecommunications antennae and support structures in 1996. These highlighted the need to have due regard to sensitive landscapes and sites. To reduce the number of masts, the guidelines advocated the co-sharing of masts. Local authority regulations in 1997 amended the existing exempted development regulations by including, as exempted developments, the attachment to an existing radial mast of antennae for mobile phones and the replacement of existing masts. These are the two issues of concern to the public.

The guidelines set out a hierarchy of suitable locations for telecommunication transmitters and state that only as a last resort, and if alternatives are either unavailable or unsuitable, should free standing masts be located in residential areas or close to schools. Lax planning legislation has allowed masts to be erected on stations without [342] planning permission. This does little to assuage public concern.

The Garda Commissioner attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Public Enterprise and Transport. My greatest difficulty with the erection of antennae on existing Garda masts is that no consultation took place between Esat Digifone or the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and local communities to provide information or reassurances in this regard. I am aware of the benefits to the State in this area. As Mr. Maloney, the chief executive of Esat, stated in an article in The Irish Times in January:

If Esat Digifone wasn't here, the Commissioner would have to pay for the new masts through public funds. So it is saving the State and the taxpayer. It's also good from an environmental point of view, as it results in only one mast instead of two.

The article goes on to state:

For the Garda, the main attraction of the deal is seen as technological rather than financial. Under the agreement, the new masts will become the property of the State after they are erected. As part of a new £75 million communications network, they will enable the Garda to have access to secure, digital transmissions technology. So far, gardaí have used analog facilities, which are susceptible to interception.

It is further stated that “Esat will have to pay a lease for the use of the new radio masts. Payments are estimated to be worth up to £3 million a year to the Garda.” This problem has led to dissatisfaction among community groups who believe there was an element of cloak and dagger involved because little information was made available. Personally, I have no difficulty with it but I am disappointed by the lack of communication and discussion involved.

I spoke to representatives of Esat today who informed me that they are obliged to fulfil the contracts they have signed. The State and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform should permit some relaxation of the rules if Esat is prepared not to erect antennae on certain Garda masts because of local opposition.

I wish to refer to an item which is not on the agenda — it might be taken into account for future reference because it relates to the new director of regulation — namely, the future of digital television. The joint committee discussed this matter on two occasions and a draft report has been prepared for the director which seems to indicate that digital cable or digital MMDS might be recommended instead of digital terrestrial television. As already stated, this problem originally arose because of opposition to MMDS television. Regardless of the fact that the cost may be higher, I hope the digital terrestrial system will be put in place when a decision is made on digital system because it will fulfil the needs of rural communities and avoid the problems that [343] arose in recent years in respect of MMDS television and telecommunications masts.

Mr. Farrell: Information on Willie Farrell Zoom on Willie Farrell I welcome Members' comments on this controversial subject because many people are concerned about it. I bought a mobile telephone when they came on the market and I have access to GSM at present. Therefore, I cannot speak against the great service provided. I welcomed the introduction of a second operator because, in light of competition in this area and with the prospect of further competition in respect of land lines, the cost of telephone calls has been reduced.

Mobile phones have proven to be very useful, particularly from the point of view of business. The dangers involved have been overplayed. Eight or nine years ago I tabled a motion at a meeting of the North-Western Health Board. The World Health Organisation, which had carried out a number of surveys, provided written assurances that there was no danger from telephone masts.

I have no axe to grind in respect of this matter. Esat chose to use masts at Garda barracks and elsewhere because many objectors stated that a forest of masts would spring up throughout the country and asked why existing masts could not be used. For that reason, Esat became involved in trying to do business with the owners of existing masts to stop the proliferation of such masts. At a meeting of my local council, I stated that it was a pity the Government did not establish a body to erect masts to be leased out to interested parties. The rash of complaints about masts was not received until competition was introduced. If there was no competition, the cost of telephone calls would be more expensive.

Mobile phones are very popular throughout Europe. At Christmas, I went on holiday to northern Italy and I was contacted on my mobile phone by a man from County Leitrim. I could not believe it. These phones are valuable because people travelling abroad can be contacted directly and there is no need to use international telephone codes, etc.

The Garda authorities recently commented that because of the number of car drivers who use mobile phones, they were tipped off about instances of dangerous driving or drink driving and they were able to intercept the culprits. If old people had access to mobile phones instead of land line telephones, they would be able to contact the Garda in the event of their houses being broken into and burglars would be unable to stop them. We do not make enough use of mobile phones.

I use a mobile phone and for that reason I cannot speak against them. However, regardless of the reassurances provided, the problem is that people continue to believe there are dangers involved in their use. People seem to have problems with many things. For example, they say there is a need for additional dumps but they do [344] not want such dumps sited in their areas. They say there is a need to house travellers but they do not want them to be given accommodation in their housing estates. They say halting sites must be provided, but they do not want them situated on their streets. They say they need mobile phones, but they do not want masts to be erected. If we continue to behave in this way where will it all end?

We want modern technology, good television pictures, good telephone services and computers, but they all make use of airwaves of one sort or another and create radiation. I am told that the microwave oven is more dangerous than many other appliances, yet almost every house has one. Cars are the biggest killers in society, but we do not seek to ban them.

I do not know how we will manage to address people's fears. I sympathise with those who object to masts because I know they are motivated by genuine fear. However, much of the fear is wrongly created because it can further business. A certain number of people set themselves up as experts and make themselves available to objectors as advisers and are well paid. It is their job to generate fear. I do not know where to turn for advice nowadays. On a radio programme this morning two doctors contradicted one another on an issue. Where does the layman go for advice? If one goes to the Four Courts one will find the best brains in the world who can convince one that a case is solid.

Mr. Burke: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke As long as one has plenty of money.

Mr. Farrell: Information on Willie Farrell Zoom on Willie Farrell Yet, the case may go before a judge and another opinion is given. Therefore, one must be wrong and another right.

I do not know how these genuine fears can be allayed, but a system must be found to address them. Parents are afraid that masts are dangerous. I congratulate the Minister on the work she has done in this regard. She organised a conference in Dublin at which experts guaranteed that the masts presented no danger. However, those who object feel that there is a danger which may not become apparent for some years. The Minister has a difficult job to allay people's fears.

There are half a million mobile ’phones in the country and it is an expanding business. The related services create many jobs for technology graduates. We cannot go back to the era of the ass and cart. We must take the risks that come with each business. I recall when the ESB began widespread electrification that many people would not have electricity because they thought the cables might burn the thatched roofs. Those fears were unfounded. If the ESB was trying to put up masts nowadays they would face many problems. There was a case in which a plan to run a new line on masts from Carrick on Shannon to Ballyshannon had to be stopped due to opposition to it. In the past such a project would not have faced opposition because it would have been [345] seen as bringing work to an area. However, people are driven by fear.

We have many educated experts at our disposal but even those who came from the same colleges, having studied the same courses under the same teachers and passed the same exams come to opposing conclusions on matters. What can a Minister seeking to resolve a problem such as this do in the face of such contradictions?

I see no danger with masts. There has been a mast at RTÉ in Montrose for the last 20 years and had there been any danger people would have been dropping like flies in the area. However, property is as expensive there as in any part of Europe. It has been well proven that masts are not dangerous. However, I accept that those who protest against them genuinely believe they are. It is a problem the Minister must address. It is unfair to blame Esat because it is trying to fulfil its contract to provide a countrywide service. There should be no coverage blackspots. Rural development and industry must be based on high technology and we cannot have that without advanced communications. In a few years the masts will be obsolete and the communication will take place via satellite.

I hope the Minister will find a way to allay people's fears in this regard. A good service should be provided, particularly to rural areas. The cities have the communications networks they need but the rural areas will suffer unless the problem is sorted out.

Mr. Burke: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. I have listened closely to Senators' contributions and both sides of the argument have been put. Many people are fearful of the problems associated with masts and antennae but I do not have great fears in that regard. However, many objections and fears have been raised and the Oireachtas has a duty to allay these fears.

The Minister of State indicated that guidelines were put in place to help local authorities and An Bord Pleanála with planning applications for masts. The regulations have not gone far enough and more avenues should have been explored. Some of the greatest fears related to the aesthetic impact of masts. They do not look good in any setting and people object to them. The regulations do not go far enough in requiring them to be disguised. Greater consideration should have been given to the use of existing ESB and Telecom Éireann structures and small antennae on the top of existing structures could provide greater coverage in rural areas. As Senator Farrell said, rural areas will suffer most without new technology. Urban areas benefit from communications technology which is in place already. The regulations have not explored enough avenues with regard to the erection of masts and antennae.

I welcome the provision in the regulations that masts and antennae should be shared by mobile service providers. There should not be an unnecessary proliferation of such masts in the [346] countryside. If there is to be a third mobile phone company it should be able to tap into the many masts that are already being operated throughout the country by the two existing companies.

Competition is good and the arrival in the market of a second mobile phone company has reduced the price of mobile calls charged by Eircell. We all welcome competition. The Minister who introduced the second mobile licence must be congratulated. If there is no competition, companies can charge what they like. We have seen that with the ESB. Competition has cut prices for the half a million mobile phone users in the country.

As regards the appointment of a regulator, I mentioned on the Order of Business that the quality of RTÉ's first and second television channels in Castlebar has been very poor in recent months. This is mainly due to transmissions from Teilifís na Gaeilge. Will the Minister investigate this? It is inappropriate that our national television channels should charge a licence fee from viewers in County Mayo for something that is not being provided properly. The television picture quality is very bad and in most cases people cannot watch either RTÉ 1 or Network 2.

Rural areas will suffer most from the objections to mobile phone masts. We have a duty to explore all avenues to appease the many objectors. The Minister should allay public fears that have been raised about the use of mobile phones and the ancillary masts and antennae.

Mr. Chambers: Information on Frank Chambers Zoom on Frank Chambers I welcome the debate on telecommunication masts. It is worthy and important that such a debate is taking place. If this debate had taken place earlier at local authority level, some of the current problems would have been overcome.

The quality of RTÉ's television service in County Mayo was mentioned. Perhaps the Minister can ensure that RTÉ will bear the cost of relaying the service to the Treenbeg area of Newport, County Mayo. Local people should not have to bear an extra cost to obtain a basic service. I will convey that matter to the Minister of State, Deputy Jacob, in writing later.

The debate has covered an important aspect of communications. Partly it has arisen from the debate prior to the last election when the telecommunications service for the country became an issue. As a local authority member involved in the planning process, I know there was a complete breakdown in the discussions between elected representatives and the public.

No one can give a 100 per cent assurance in any given situation, just as one cannot be sure that when gets out of bed in the morning one will go back to bed that night. Nevertheless, there was a breakdown in communications. Matters moved swiftly as an important industry was being developed. Esat and Eircell should review the position where people have objected to the location of their masts. They should find alternative locations for antennae that are causing difficulties. [347] Those matters can be resolved within counties as long as certain assurances are given.

As previous speakers mentioned, most of the places where concern has been expressed about masts are areas of high amenity which require good levels of telecommunication. However, these areas must look after their existing amenities. While siting is important, it is possible to achieve a balance. Piecemeal operations with individuals doing their own thing, have caused tremendous confusion.

I welcome the Minister's guidelines concerning the choice of sites which are suitable for the environment and which should be, as far as possible, away from areas of population.

It is good that this issue is being discussed. The Government is constantly reviewing and monitoring the effects on the environment of microwave discharges from the service. This is necessary to alleviate the concerns of the public whom we are here to serve. The Government must be seen to keep the public informed of developments.

Improvements can be made through negotiation. Individual counties can take steps to ensure that telecommunication systems are improved and expanded. We can create the necessary competition to provide a reasonably priced service based on modern technology.

I support the discussion document which is very worthwhile. This process should continue to work in tandem with local authorities for the future development of the service.

Minister of State at the Department of Public Enterprise (Mr. Jacob): Information on Joe Jacob Zoom on Joe Jacob I compliment all the Senators who contributed to this important and topical debate. I have noted the concerns they raised, including the independent monitoring of masts, planning regulations and exemptions, independent research into health effects and the need for Esat and Eircell to consult more proactively with local communities. The issues will be addressed in the context of the response of the Oireachtas Joint Committee for Public Enterprise.

Independent research is being commissioned by the European Union and the World Health Organisation. We fully partake in the work of those bodies. We are following the most up to date standards which are continually assessed.

We appreciate very much the interest of community groups in this topic. As Senators have indicated, those groups have expressed genuine concerns which must be respected and addressed. I note the recognition by Senators of the importance of telecommunications not only to the country's overall economic development but to business and individuals, particularly those who use the service in emergencies. Coming from a mountainous constituency, the example of a doctor who happens to be out in the Wicklow mountains and is perhaps 20 to 40 miles from his home is often brought home to me. He goes back home to find that if he had been contactable in that area [348] he might have saved a journey of 80 miles and saved a life or lives. Likewise there is the example of the vet who might have saved the life of a sick animal. The telecommunications service is hugely important.

In conclusion, I thank Senators for raising the issue and assure them that their concerns will be listened to.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Brian Mullooly Zoom on Brian Mullooly When is it proposed to sit again?

Mr. McGowan: Information on Paddy McGowan Zoom on Paddy McGowan At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.


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