Communication Breakdown 

As the industry dials in to increasing demands for wireless, communities do their best to speak out. But is anybody listening?

click to flip through (7) STORY BY BRADEN DUPUIS - Communication Breakdown - As the industry dials in to increasing demands for wireless, communities do their best to speak out. But is anybody listening?
  • Story by Braden Dupuis
  • Communication Breakdown - As the industry dials in to increasing demands for wireless, communities do their best to speak out. But is anybody listening?
It's Dec. 10, 2014, and Riley Brown stands at the front of a packed room at Myrtle Philip Community School.

As the field sales project director for SBA Canada, Brown has the unenviable task on this night of selling his boss' vision to a crowd of disapproving Whistler residents.

That vision? A 35-metre cell tower to be erected at the corner of Highway 99 and Lorimer Road.

At the front of the room, Brown is joined by two representatives of Scott Telecom Services.

As the 75 or so Whistler residents file into the room, the three men exude an amiable, professional confidence.

With the audience settled, they give a short presentation on the proposed tower, highlighting the rise in cellular data usage and the need for enhanced coverage — before opening the floor to questions.

It was all downhill from there.

"We're here telling you that we don't want this tower where you want to put it," one man said.

"Perhaps it's just convenient for you to put it there because all your hookups are there. However, I don't think you've convinced me, or most of the people in this room, that there are not any alternative locations."

To address concerns about the tower being an eyesore, SBA presented mock-ups of what they call a "mono-pine" cell tower — a concept designed to make the tower look like a tree by painting it brown and adding foliage.

Any mention of the mono-pine design drew audible derision from the audience.

Some residents were concerned with information found on Industry Canada's website that says SBA would be able to increase the height of the tower by 25 per cent without any prior consultation to accommodate other cell carriers.

"How are you going to hide it (then)? Are you going to put more metal leaves on it?" one resident asked.

It was sometime after the first hour of questioning that a look of hopelessness started to show on the faces of the three men.

Questions came from the floor and the men did their best to answer, but nothing they said seemed to be heard or acknowledged by those in attendance.

Throughout it all the two parties never seemed to be on the same plane of understanding.

Somehow, and somewhat ironically, there was a missed connection in the room that night.

'People want to be connected'

Players in the Canadian cell tower industry should be used to this scenario by now.

If they aren't, they likely soon will be.

As wireless demand grows at unprecedented rates, the need for new infrastructure grows with it.

According to Marc Choma, senior director of communications for industry lobby group Canadian Wireless Telecom Association (CWTA), wireless data consumption in Canada will grow 900 per cent by 2018.

Keeping up with that demand is a constant challenge for cellular carriers.

"People want to be connected in their homes," Choma said.

"They want to be able to use their tablets, they want to be able to use their smartphones, and so that's why when a carrier comes to a community it's because of demand, it's not because they're just looking for places to spend money, because it is very expensive to do that."

The cost to put up a tower, Choma said, is usually about $1 million per site, not including the costs of ongoing maintenance and servicing.

From an industry perspective, new cell towers are meeting the needs and demands of an increasingly wireless-reliant population.

Statistics Canada estimates that 20 per cent of Canadian households are now wireless only.

Being at odds with communities over cell tower placement is not something cellular carriers are particularly interested in.

In early 2014, Minister of Industry James Moore introduced new regulations stating that telecom companies had to consult with communities before erecting towers, regardless of their size.

The new regulations were based in part off of an antenna siting protocol template developed by the CWTA and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

"So it really hasn't changed anything on this side of the industry," Choma said.

"Those are the kinds of things that we thought would make it better for communities."

While the new regulations mean communities must be consulted, if they choose to issue a letter of non-concurrence once the consultation period is over, it doesn't carry any legislative weight.

If municipalities and cellular carriers can't reach an agreement, the final decision rests with Industry Canada.

Throughout the public consultation period, community members may address concerns with the location and look of the tower, but not potential effects on property values or health to humans.

But in most cases, it's those two aspects that people want to focus on the most.

'What could be more important?'

In 2014, Elaine Grotefeld was at the head of a group of West Vancouver citizens who actively fought to oppose three proposed cell towers.

"When we started off there was only about six of us," Grotefeld recalled.

"We started from a very small base. It was a very informal group. The first thing we did was set up a new email and a distribution list."

Once the group had numbers to back it up, it began lobbying West Vancouver council with its concerns.

Though Industry Canada says opponents aren't to focus on potential negative health impacts, the West Vancouver Cell Towers Action Group didn't pay that guideline much attention.

"We did, regardless of what they say," Grotefeld said.

"They also say officially that you're not supposed to use property values either. So what can you use? It's outrageous. They're saying that you can't use any arguments to protest them? What is that about? Where's our right to free speech, and to express the things that really worry us?"

The official line from Health Canada is that Radio Frequency (RF) exposure levels from cell phones and towers are not strong enough to pose a risk to Canadians.

Officials reached at Health Canada declined to be interviewed for this feature, pointing instead to the plethora of information available on its website.

"The vast majority of scientific research to date does not support a link between RF energy exposure and human cancers," says a Government of Canada website.

"At present, the evidence of a possible link between RF energy exposure and cancer risk is far from conclusive and more research is needed to clarify this 'possible' link."

But in the eyes of Grotefeld, this statement is far from comforting.

"No they have not been proven to be harmful, but they have not been proven to be safe... Who are we to take such risks with our own children?" she said.

"What could be more important than our concern for our children's health?"

According to Martin Blank, a special lecturer in physiology and cellular biophysics at Columbia University, recipient of two PhDs and author of the 2014 book "Overpowered: The Dangers of Electromagnetic Radiation and What You Can Do About It," Health Canada's research is on the wrong side of history.

"It's wrong, but it's also a lie," Blank said.

"Because if they looked at the literature they'd find, for example, that those fields could cause DNA damage. They can cause the cellular stress response, which is the biological response to bad stimulus."

Blank likens the EMF debate of today to the tobacco industry's fight against perceived health concerns in the 1950s.

It comes down to a swelling chorus of concerned community members against the deep pockets of a billion-dollar industry.

"To me it's a problem of biology. To them it's a problem of economics," he said.

Big industry is using the uncertainty of the health effects to line its pockets, and if 10 years from now it turns out that cell towers and phones are dangerous to humans, so what?

"The thing is, by then they will have cashed in and cashed out," Blank said.

"We know that that's the economic system, and everybody tries to make money. But the thing is, when you're dealing with people's health, you ought to at least make the gesture, and this is a false gesture.

"When they talk about setting up standards, the standards are useless."

Blank has an intimate knowledge of Health Canada's Safety Code 6, having served as one of four professionals who reviewed the government's guidelines governing radiofrequency emissions last year.

In a presentation on Safety Code 6 to the Royal Society of Canada — which can be viewed on YouTube — Blank made the argument that Canada's current safety standards do not adequately protect the health and welfare of the public.

"I urge you to revise Safety Code 6 to take into consideration these established biological and scientific findings," he said.

While declining an interview Health Canada did reveal to Pique that it was in consultation with the Royal Society of Canada regarding a review.

"Among the recommendations made by the Royal Society of Canada, it was suggested that the proposed reference levels in Safety Code 6 be made slightly more restrictive in some frequency ranges to ensure large safety margins for all Canadians, including newborn infants and children," said Eric Morrissette, senior media relations advisor with Health Canada, in an email.

"This recommendation takes into account recent dosimetry studies, one of which became available since Health Canada developed the proposed revision of Safety Code 6.

"The Department is currently reviewing these recommendations and will revise the levels accordingly.

"However, it is important to note that Health Canada reminds all Canadians that their health is protected from radio-frequency fields by the human exposure limits recommended in Safety Code 6. The current Safety Code establishes and maintains a human exposure limit that is far below the threshold for potentially adverse health effects. The limits in Safety Code 6 provide protection against all known adverse health effects for all individuals."

Said Blank upon learning of the review: "...Safety is based on the (published) cell biology research (e.g., stress response activation). They are just plain wrong, and they should know better."

'I want to be able to get through to an emergency responder'

Lisa Haeck is of the belief that the health concerns are overblown.

It's Feb. 5, 2015, and Haeck is one of several Pembertonians attending an open house to learn more about a proposed cell tower in Pemberton.

"I'm here because of the bottom line, which is communications," Haeck said.

"At the end of the day, no matter how much we discuss radiofrequency waves or radiation, when I dial 911, I want to be able to get through to an emergency responder if there's a problem.

"In the past we've had problems trying to call from our basements or our garages, so this tower is going to make all the difference."

To hear it from CWTA's Choma, people like Haeck may be in the majority.

"I think the vast majority of cases, the infrastructure goes up and you don't hear about it. I think you just hear about the cases where there is some opposition to it," he said.

"I think in some communities you'll have a vocal minority of let's say 25 to 30 people, but then you have the rest of the population that really, they're more interested in getting their service than they are about worrying about the actual infrastructure."

The vocal minority is most likely to be made up of those directly affected by the tower, or living in close vicinity.

For Nicole Beaudry, it's the latter.

Beaudry lives right next door to the tower now proposed in Pemberton.

At the open house on Feb. 5, she voiced her concerns to proponent Rogers, anti-tower petition in hand.

"I'm not crazy about it," she said.

"I don't want to see it going up in my community, and I do not want RF waves affecting me or my health, and that's what it will do."

Beaudry plans to present her petition to Pemberton council, and is looking into the possibility of getting health experts to speak as well.

"I think you've got to hear both sides of the coin," she said.

"Tonight we're going to hear their side, and I would like the community to hear the other side."

With all the conflicting studies and opinions on the matter, it can be hard to know what to think.

"The Internet is a wonderful thing, and we use it every day, but there is a lot of misinformation out there," Choma said.

"I encourage everyone to certainly look at all the information that is out there, but we have to rely on the international scientific community. We have to rely on Health Canada.

"Here in Canada, they're the body that actually governs health regulations, and Industry Canada, they are the enforcers of those regulations, and to date, none of these credible international organizations have found any evidence that wireless technologies pose a risk to human health."

'Missing the key messages'

There's a curious acronym that's come into use in recent decades, though its exact origins are difficult to source.

As our society continues to develop and grow, the Not In My Back Yard phenomenon — or NIMBY — seems to grow with it.

It would be easy to dismiss cell tower opponents as NIMBYs, but to do so might not be fair.

"If there are legitimate health reasons, for example, then it could be not so much NIMBYism as simply an expression of a concern for the health effects," said Max Cameron, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.

"Why should anybody feel any obligation whatsoever to pay a price so that somebody else can profit? I don't really think that's NIMBYism. I think that's a simple matter of distribution of gains from a private initiative."

Indeed, the people of Whistler now embroiled in their own cell tower battle have actively rejected the term.

At one public meeting, a new acronym was introduced — NIMFY, or Not In My Front Yard.

It represents one of the main concerns Whistlerites have with the 35-metre tower — that it will ruin the stunning sightlines of British Columbia's tourism gem.

Over the past several months, opponents of the tower have put a lot of time and effort into stating their case, but they've also learned a lot throughout the process, said Stan Kranjc, a Whistler resident who has been in opposition since the beginning.

"There have been lots of folks that have put an inordinate amount of work in both behind the scenes and up front," Kranjc said.

"We've all learned a lot in this town, recognizing that it's a necessary utility for all of us, and there's going to be more work in the future to accommodate the carriers."

But for the relationship between carriers and communities to work, there has to be communication on both sides.

"Your team seems to be totally missing the key messages from many of the people of Whistler about maintaining the visual authenticity of this special community and tourism powerhouse," wrote Doug Forseth, Whistler Blackcomb's vice president of planning, government relations and special projects, in a letter addressed to proponents of the tower.

In his letter, Forseth, who was not available for an interview, noted that other cellular companies such as Telus, Bell and Rogers have been able to do business in Whistler while respecting the concerns of the community.

"SBA/Scott and WIND, on the other hand, don't seem to care about how they are perceived," Forseth wrote.

"You are losing the public relations battle in Whistler and I suggest that your team re-group and re-think your strategies. If WIND has long term plans to expand their service in Whistler they might want to consider what that looks like without the support of Whistler Blackcomb and mountain installations."

Whistler Chamber of Commerce CEO Val Litwin offered similar thoughts in a letter of his own to SBA.

"Our 2.5 million visitors each year come to enjoy unobstructed views of pristine wilderness, walk among real trees and immerse themselves in an authentic alpine experience," Litwin wrote.

"A cell tower — placed near the epicenter of town — that will sit well above the existing tree line will be an eyesore in a resort that prides itself on natural vistas. The news that the tower might be dressed up as a false tree... is little consolation in a town where guests and locals have come to enjoy natural nature.

"The proposed site and structure is not acceptable to our organization and we request that SBA re-engage in public consultation and find an alternate site."

Though the outcome has yet to be decided, the united opposition in Whistler — from residents and businesses alike — is a prime example of a community working together toward a common goal.

"It's an indication of how strong this town is, and how we can band together on issues that concern us," Kranjc said.

"That's what this town is about. We'll drop what we're doing and kick ass if our neighbour needs help. It's what we do.

"It's a small town. That's what's beautiful about it."

As of the writing of this article, the Resort Municipality of Whistler is waiting for SBA to respond to all relevant comments before putting the council position to a vote.

A decision is expected sometime in early March.

'A lot of misinformation'

"There is a lot of misinformation out there," Choma told me.

It's a sentiment I heard repeated by no less than three people on either side of the cell tower debate over the course of my research for this story.

Three different people asked to see their quotes before the story was printed, to ensure the information put forth wasn't adding to the weight of an already muddled issue.

In the sheer volume of information readily available on the subject, some of it is bound to be wrong. But how can we possibly zero in on what's right through all the accompanying white noise?

It's funny to me that in a story based on enhancing communication capacities, so many people seem to be communicating on different wavelengths.

And for all of our advances in technology, making it possible to reach one another instantly by voice, video or text, we still have so much trouble understanding one another.

Decide for yourself

Safety Code 6 Fact Sheet:

The Royal Society of Canada's Review of SC6:

Industry Canada's facts about

Cell Phone Subscriber stats from the CWTA:

Martin Blank's "Overpowered":

Martin Blank presents to the Royal Society of Canada:

Map of cellular sites in Canada:


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