The University of Vermont’s Law School Environmental Law Program recently held a conference called “Unplugged” dealing not with MTV, but with the wireless phone revolution-particularly the issue of antennas and their environmental impact. The organizers made an attempt to provide a wide range of views, but there was an underlying assumption that was hard to avoid: the correct environmental position was opposition to antennas and towers.
Scientists, engineers, and government officials were there to talk about radio frequency emissions and safety levels. The point was made convincingly that wireless phone antennas operate at hundreds or thousands of times below safety limits and do not pose a health risk to the public. Some in the audience-which was open to the public-were prepared to listen. Some were not.
Other speakers dealt with the environmental question of aesthetics. Their argument had a simple logic: towers are ugly and they don’t want to look at them.
I thought about this argument on New Year’s Day, as my wife and I hiked along Assateague Island. Assateague is a barrier island and national park that runs along the coast of Maryland and Virginia. It being January and the coast of the North Atlantic, we had little company except for the wild ponies that roam the island. Most of the time, it was just the two of us, the surf, the sand-and a line of telephone poles running down the middle of the island.
These telephone poles are a manifestation of a phenomenon we could call “The Mystery of the Disappearing Telephone Poles.” They are so ubiquitous that they have become invisible. Many of those who are concerned about “aesthetic pollution” are unable to see the millions and millions of telephone poles in this country.
Fortunately for the environment, this will not be the situation for the rest of the world. It’s estimated that half of the world’s people do not now have access to phone service-but they soon will.
Throughout much of the developing world, telephone service is expanding at a break-neck pace. These nations won’t have to worry about disappearing telephone poles. They will never have them in the first place. They are going directly to wireless phones because it is much cheaper to build the system and provide the service. But there is also another major benefit: forests will not be decimated for poles, tons of copper will not be mined for wire and neither the poles nor the wire will become part of the permanent landscape.
All-in-all, that’s a very correct environmental position.
Tim Ayers is vice president of communications for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.