The installation of base transceiver towers (BTS), commonly known as cellular towers, in residential areas inside the Walled City, is a cause for concern. Some suggest shifting to satellite
According to the statistics provided by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), presently there are 163 million cellular subscribers in Pakistan. This rapid development has a flip side — the installation of base transceiver towers (BTS), commonly known as cellular towers, in residential areas.
Recently, the issue was taken up by the residents of the Walled City, who said that the unregulated installation of the said towers would disturb the ecology of the area.
“Normally, the towers would be installed on rooftops of tall buildings or plazas,” says Akhtar, a local. “But now the telecom and internet companies have started to install them in residential areas also.
“The trend is catching on, and now we frequently see two or three towers erected in close proximity to one another. These towers emit radiations that disturb everyday life. Irrespective of the weather, we spend most time of the day on rooftops. In winters, our women do most of the house chores on the rooftops, whereas in summers, we sleep on the rooftops. But the installation of the towers has brought with it the menace of generators. Every time the power is off, the generators start working, and we can’t sleep because of the noise as well as the strong smell of diesel which also affects our lungs and throats,” he adds.
According to Akbar, the residents have expressed their concerns to the owners of the houses where these towers have been installed, and also spoken with the concerned authorities. Unfortunately, where the authorities have taken no action so far, the house owners seem unwilling to let go of the handsome (monthly) remuneration that the installation of towers brings them.
It may be mentioned here that the local government has formulated a policy regarding the installation of mobile phone towers, according to which three departments are responsible for allowing cellular companies to install towers in the city — the Local Government or Tehsil Municipal Offices, Environment Protection Department (EPD), and Frequency Allocation Board (FAB) which works in tandem with the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA). However, the matters related to the Walled City are looked after by the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA).
TNS spoke with all the three departments, and each held another responsible for the state of affairs.
“According to the law which was formulated in 2009, an NOC for the installation of mobile towers follows the complete procedure,” said a senior official at the Lahore Metropolitan Corporation, not wanting to be named. “A designated committee completes all the formalities and sends its report to the Deputy Commissioner’s Office. Another committee headed by the DC reviews and approves/disapproves it.”
The official claimed that the matter regarding “the installation of mobile phone towers in residential areas [in the Walled City] has not come to our notice, nor has anyone lodged a complaint as yet. This is because all matters related to the Walled City are dealt with by the WCLA, which is a full-fledged body. We have handed over the authority to them, and they are the ones who should be dealing with the issue at hand.”
The local government has formulated a policy regarding the installation of mobile phone towers, according to which three departments are responsible for allowing cellular companies to install towers in the city — the Local Government or Tehsil Municipal Offices, Environment Protection Department (EPD), and Frequency Allocation Board (FAB) which works in tandem with the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA).
Kamran Lashari, the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA), chairman said, “We have inherited the system from the Municipal Corporation. Most of its functions have been passed on; a few [functions] such as taxation are still with the Corporation.
“What’s happening is that the Tehsil Municipal Office (TMO) of Lahore Metropolitan Corporation, without consulting us or seeking permission from us, is issuing permissions to install the towers. We haven’t dealt with the subject until today.”
Similarly, the EPD denied its role in the matter. An official at the Department said, “A BTS tower has three components: one is the Genset (generator/ electric/power supply), the second is a tower, and third is the antenna. As far as the EPD is concerned, our role is limited to Genset as we deal only with emissions. We have a set procedure. We have established our labs in eight districts of the Punjab. Whenever we receive a complaint [about the Genset], we issue a notice to the company, and later a legal order, which is also called a protection order.
“As far as the mushroom growth of mobile towers in the Walled City is concerned, I believe it is because of the competition among cellular companies. Moreover, I also believe that thanks to the lure of money, the citizens are encouraging this trend,” he added. “I don’t think that if someone has rented a part of his building to some cellular company, his neighbours are concerned about the environment or ecology. It is not being able to have a share in the pie that must be troubling them.”
A senior official at PTA said, “The issue is not related to us, the reason being that our job is to ensure the technical specifications according to international standards. The authority to permit the installation of a telecom tower lies with other departments.”
Cellular companies, on the other hand, aren’t ready to accept that the towers are dangerous for human health. Rabia, who works as Public Relations Officers (PRO) at a leading telecom company, said, “In the past too, many such issues were raised. Some of them ended up in courts.
“There is no scientific evidence to prove that microwaves emitted by these towers are harmful to human health,” she added. “Human exposure to radio waves from the BTS towers is insignificant for various reasons. The signals are not transmitted intermittently, and the antennas are mounted high above the ground.
“As per international standards and policies, which have been adopted by the Pakistani authorities, antennas of these towers should be installed at a height that ensures that there is no human exposure till 25 metres horizontally. In any case, antennas are higher than that, even if they are installed atop a residential building. Yes, the people on the roof may be more exposed to radiation from the antennas than the persons on the ground, but even then it is not harmful to them.”
Qamar Abbas, a telecom engineer, shed light on the issue in the following words: “It is confirmed that long-term exposure to microwaves leaves their effect on human health, but these aren’t of serious nature.”
Abbas suggested shifting to modern technology to counter the problem. “In crowded areas, if the towers are installed outside the vicinity or underground, they are unable to transmit signals in full strength. Even with the most powerful antennas, they cannot cover all directions. Since the Walled City is a congested area, cellular companies are installing towers in order to win more subscribers. The only solution is to shift from the tower system to satellite.”
Both EPD and PTA officials stress the need for resource sharing. They believe that the Walled City is already a protected area; therefore, the mobile companies should be encouraged to share towers. They also spoke of a policy formulated by the PTA in this regard. Though it is not mandatory, it would be better if telecom or internet companies started considering sharing resources, they say.