First, there were the deaths of two people when a telecommunication mast came tumbling down; then came the slapping of penalties on all five operating mobile phone companies in the country by the National Communication Authority (NCA) for poor quality operations in some areas.
The public’s reactions to these two cases – frustration and, sometimes, anger – bring to the fore years of complaints of the public on the issues.
While the penalties are new, the issue of the base stations and masts has been with us for years and appear to defy solution.
Certainly, the mobile phone has been one of the greatest developments in telecommunication.
But while the gadget gives us instant access to audio, video and internet messages among other things, on the go anytime and anywhere, the safety of the means by which they are communicated to and fro – base stations and antennas – have been questioned every now and again.
This is because of fears that they pose health hazards. Indeed, the mobile phones themselves are said to pose health hazards but these may not be as serious as the base stations and antennas that are fixed structures.
In Ghana, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the NCA have clear guidelines for the installation and operation of communication masts.
The EPA notes that the expansion of telecommunication technology in Ghana in the 1990s has improved international links that have attracted multinational courier businesses, emergence of several broadcasting companies and telecommunication services.
And as a result of the liberalisation of the telecom sector, there has been an unprecedented expansion of communication and information infrastructure.
The NCA notes that the growing demand for mobile phone services has necessitated the increase in communications infrastructure such as towers, which are needed to ensure that there is adequate network coverage and access that guarantee minimum quality of service.
But some members of the public believe that the telecommunication companies have been violating public statutes in the construction of antennas and base stations.
Speaking to the Ghana News Agency Mr Daniel Nii Ashietey, a plumber at Labone in Accra, says as far he is concerned radiation and accidents are the two main reasons why people living in an area like Labone Secondary School should reject the erection of masts by telecom companies.
“It is said that the use of mobile phones for a long time is not good for the user. I don’t think telecom mats should be close to human settlements because of the radiation from the masts which causes cancer,” he says.
Asked whether this has been scientifically proven, Nii Ashietey says “yes” but quickly adds that attempts have been made in recent times to “discredit” the report.
“If they want to erect such high poles, it should be a policy issue where government will determine where they should put them so as protect human lives and property. Just as there are rules for the erection of high tension poles for electricity, the same can be done for telecom masts,” he said.
“I know of places where telecom masts have fallen on the roofs of people causing serious damage to property. But, you see, because the telecom companies have money, they can afford to restore your roofs sometimes with even better roofing materials.”
But how many citizens know about the effects of mobile phones, antennas and base stations, if any, on their health.
“My family in my home town was approached by one of the telecommunication companies that an area near our house was the only place where they had ‘strong signals’ to erect a base station and antenna. There was no education on the side effects and there was subtle pressure by the people in the town because if the family did not agree, there would not be a good reception from that mobile service provider,” said a public servant in Accra. So the mast and base station were erected.
Even in a situation where residents of an area are conscious of the law on the subject and the effects of antennas and base stations, there appears to be little or no consultation.
“A telecom company constructed a phone mast and base station near my house without prior approval and permit from the Environmental Protection Agency, Town and Country Planning Department of the Assembly, Radiation Protection Board,” says a resident on the Spintex Road in Accra.
“In a purely residential area this was unlawful and illegal as they contravened various laws and regulations,” he adds.
In another instance, even after another telecom company was cautioned by residents when it started constructing a mast, the workers brushed aside their concerns and went ahead.
Ms Cecelia Odoley Sowah, a resident of Labone Apapa, recalls that but for the intervention of an influential man in the area, they would not have been able to stop the installation of a telephone mast near their house last year.
She says the man came in because his two-storey building was the closest to the mast.
“He took the landowner and the telecom company to court and fortunately he won the case and the company came to remove the mast which was almost near completion at the time.”
“If you should talk to anybody in the community I can guarantee you that not even one person will tell you the masts should be close to them. But, brother, let’s face facts, though I may kick against it, if I have the land and a telecom company approaches me and the money is good, I will allow it,” says John Mensah, another resident of the Labone Apapa.
Others also say that although they have heard of reports that there is radiation from the masts that causes cancer, they have never heard of any case and therefore perhaps it may not be true.
But the rules are rather clear on the installation of base stations and masts.
According to the EPA, approvals must be obtained from it (EPA), NCA, Ghana Standards Board, Ghana Civil Aviation Authority, Radiation Protection Board and Town and Country Planning Department.
There are requirements for monitoring, safety assessment, control devices and decommissioning of masts.
The EPA says there are a number of concerns related to the installation of telecommunication masts and supporting infrastructure. These are noise nuisance; public risk concerns; health hazards; lightning; visual intrusion; aviation risks; land use conflict and fire risks.
“Telecommunication base stations use and transmit electromagnetic waves,” say the EPA guidelines, which add that there are public concerns that such waves may have adverse effects in health.
They add: “The balance of evidence from the various studies indicates that there is no general risk to the health of people living close to base stations on the basis that exposures are expected to be small.”
“However, there can be indirect adverse effects on their well-being in some cases. The possibility of harm cannot be ruled out with confidence and that the gaps in knowledge are sufficient to justify a precautionary approach.”
New guidelines by the NCA for the installation of a phone mast indicate that any mast situated in a residential area must possess a permissible maximum height of 35 metres; individual consultations with neighbours within 50 metres radius of the mast; group consultation with neighbours within 500 metres radius; and one week notice to participants before group consultations.
What do the telcos have to say? Perhaps the position of MTN, the market leader in Ghana, would summarise their stand.
MTN says on its website that some people express concerns about possible health effects that could result from exposure to radio frequency fields particularly those emitted from cell phones and their base stations.
“While the media and some others have focused on a small number of research reports which allege possible harmful effects from cell phones and base stations, they have largely ignored the numerous studies which show no negative health effects at levels below the national and international guidelines,” it adds.
The various regulatory bodies in Ghana have a task to ensure that their guidelines are complied with for business to continue, health risks eliminated and the people to have the full and uninterrupted services of mobile phones.
In the meantime, the debate will continue as the telcos battle their way out of their challenges.