Week in Review

The flurry and futility of 5G protests

Facebook groups opposed to 5G in their community are springing up from Nelson to Mangawhai, but local options to stop 5G appear limited

Last week, around 25 protestors stood outside Vodafone’s Auckland’s offices armed with parkas and placards. 

The parkas were for the inclement weather. The placards called for a halt to the 5G rollout.

It may have been New Zealand’s most polite protest. 

“It was a hellishly wet and windy day so we handed out hot tea and sandwiches and we listened politely and respectfully for a couple of hours,” said Vodafone spokesperson Richard Llewellyn.

He described this as old-fashioned hospitality. “It never hurts to be kind.”

There’s good reason for telcos to be benevolent. Placards aren’t likely to stop 5G.

The flurry of grassroots anti-5G community groups springing up on Facebook have little hope of halting the march of 5G cell towers through their communities. For the most part the telecommunications industry is free to upgrade or erect towers without applying for resource consents.

At present, the only step protestors can take is to boycott 5G by shifting to telcos not using the technology. As time rolls on though, the pool is likely to shrink.

Newsroom spoke to some of the alternative providers on a spreadsheet shared on an anti-5G website which calls for the boycotting of Spark, 2 Degrees and Vodafone. Most said they use Spark’s network and will likely offer 5G to customers in the future.

Where does the worry come from?

One of the worries is 5G could cause cancer. 

Plenty of study has been done on the link between mobile phone use and cancer. Data from a long-term study has caused concern for some. The study looked at people who had used mobile phones for 10 years or more and found no increased risk of brain cancer in users. However, it did find some indication of an increased risk for those who were heavy phone users.

It wasn’t cut and dry though. It wasn't a consistent trend and researchers thought biases and errors limited the ability to prove the increased risk was caused by mobile usage.

The results were enough to get radio frequency electromagnetic fields listed as a possible carcinogen, where it joins aloe vera, pickled vegetables, carpentry and coffee as things where a link with cancer is thought possible, but not proven.

Many scientists were unhappy at the inclusion, pointing out that saying something is a possible carcinogen is like saying someone is a shoplifter just because they were in the shop at the same time a theft occurred. 
The World Health Organisation's position on the matter is that a link to cancer is not established, but further research is warranted.

It’s not just the age-old worry of cellphones and brain cancer that concerns protestors.

5G may mean the use of higher frequencies known as millimetre waves. There’s also what’s called beam-forming, where signals are directed to the area needed. There’s a call for this ‘new’ technology to be proven to be safe.

The Ministry of Health’s stance is millimetre waves aren’t new and have been shown to be safe, and beam-forming will most likely result in lower exposure than existing technology.

New Zealand rules limit public exposures to levels at least 50 times below those at which harm might occur. 

Russia's state-controlled RT America's presenters have referred to 5G cell towers as toxic infrastructure. Photo: Getty Images

None of this appears to comfort a burgeoning number of concerned Kiwis.

Technology commentator Paul Brislen has been following the rise of the anti-5G movement overseas and in New Zealand.

He said protests this time are louder than during the 3G or 4G rollout. This increase in public concern was investigated by the New York Times, which traced concern to stories being spread to a Russian news source RT America.

“It turns out stories about how American 5G will kill people. Russian 5G is fine but American 5G is a different thing entirely and is designed to imprison people in their own heads.”

Language in RT America’s 5G news clips is emotive. “It might kill you,” says a presenter who refers to the erection of cellphone towers as groundwork for a “toxic infrastructure”.

These stories were widely shared on Facebook, said Brislen, who has seen a number of Facebook groups start up locally. 

“People get very upset and very afraid when they read some of these things.”

Brislen has seen claims 5G technology is a death ray used in military-controlled countries and that it's responsible for the death of birds and bees.

What protestors want

Lisa Er, of Lisa’s Hummus fame, was one of the protestors who braved the rainy weather to stand outside Vodafone. She doesn’t go as far as referring to herself as a spokesperson for the movement because there are groups throughout the country. 

She said an overarching goal of the various groups was for the Government to take a precautionary approach.

“Until there is more testing to show that actually, this is safe, then it shouldn’t be rolled out.”

A current focus of the movement is trying to raise awareness. She said despite a perception they’re “tin-foil hat”-wearers a lot of the supporters are mainstream people.

“I really think it’s just a question of banging on and banging on to the companies and to the Government until someone listens.”

Part of the 'banging on' involves numerous petitions, talks given by lawyer Sue Grey, and a fundraising effort to bring an overseas professor to New Zealand. 

The fundraising page, on the Spark Foundation-owned Give a Little website, said Professor Dariusz Leszczynski had offered to talk at public gatherings and offered to meet politicians.

So far, just over half of the $7000 target has been raised.

Pulling the handbrake on the rollout is going to be difficult - Er says because of rules introduced in 2008 that stopped local councils from being able to block cell towers by denying resource consents.

Will protest change anything?

Brislen said in the past local council control resulted in some areas not having cellphone towers. The National Environmental Standards for Telecommunication Facilities changed this.

“That’s kind of taken the sting out of a lot of this because local councils can get upset as much as they like and locals as well, but these things meet the standards, and the standards are fairly stringent.

“It doesn’t stop the shouting and ranting, but the practical blocking of it is very difficult.”

The upgrading of existing cell towers and erection of new towers are permitted as long as rules around size, placement and emission standards are adhered to.

Vodafone’s Llewlyn said Vodafone staff shared information from the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation with last week’s polite protestors but doubts it changed their minds.

The call to boycott Spark, 2 Degrees and Vodafone hasn't led to an attrition-rate he could pin on 5G.

“If anything it’s the opposite, we have had a lot of interest from customers in 5G and a huge amount of pre-registrations.”

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