It is unregulated, untested, more dangerous than its proponents would have you believe – and soon to become even more powerful.
In early summer of 1997, computer scientist and former Dutch military radar engineer Vic Hayes joined the end of a long line of scientists and smiled at the camera. The shutter clicked, celebrating the official launch of the first international Wi-Fi standard.
Originally designed to connect together cash-registers at checkouts, the ambitious scientist made no secret of his desires for the new technology. “I see Wi-Fi being used for everything eventually,” he was quoted as saying, but not even he could have predicted how widespread his invention would become.
By 2008, experts predict that there will be 53 million Wi-Fi enabled devices in Europe alone. One in every five UK adults already owns a Wi-Fi enabled laptop, and 80 per cent of secondary schools in the UK have installed the technology throughout their buildings. McDonald’s recently announced that free Wi-Fi facilities would be available in all its restaurants, and the growing “Mu-Fi” initiative – where entire municipalities receive Wi-Fi coverage – has already made Norwich the UK’s first “Wi-Fi town”.
The technology is sold to the public as the ultimate convenience tool: it allows you to grab a coffee and check your email on the go, to print photos without using a wire or listen to music on speakers not even attached to a computer. In schools, teachers can already give lessons using Wi-Fi white-boards, and in the near future hand-held Wi-Fi terminals will enable children to interact with digital lesson. In the words of the technology’s industry group, the Wi-Fi Alliance: “Simply put, Wi-Fi is freedom.”
But freedom at what cost?
Wi-Fi appeared on our shelves without having to undergo any tests or safety checks whatsoever. This was partly achieved because Vic Hayes and his team developed Wi-Fi to use an unlicensed part of the radio spectrum – freed-up airwaves designed to encourage more widespread public use of wireless technology. As long as the technology met basic requirements on interference and compatibility, consumers were free to buy and use Wi-Fi devices as they and the manufacturers saw fit. In the UK, the spectrum used by Wi-Fi (2.4 gigahertz) became available for unlicensed use in 2000.
Denis Henshaw, professor of physics at the University of Bristol, finds it remarkable Wi-Fi-enabled equipment could have come to market without having to undergo any trials.
“If you are a drug company marketing a new drug, you have to go through years of testing to prove your product is safe,” he says.”If you’re a Wi-Fi developer using the 2.4 GHz spectrum, however, you don’t need to prove anything.”
Concerns were first raised about the health effects of Wi-Fi as early as 2000. A report by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), the body responsible for the use of IT in schools, noted that engineers installing some of the first classroom-based systems complained of headaches at the end of the day. The report was never published, but was eventually leaked to The Times Educational Supplement seven years later.
In 2003, concerned parents of children in suburban Chicago filed a lawsuit against the Oak Park Elementary School on the basis of concerns over the possible adverse health effects of the school’s Wi-Fi network. The father who made the claim, Ron Baiman, said he acted because “there are a lot of experts who say there are potential risks”.
For years, it was left to distressed teachers or parents with children suffering from repeated headaches to act as unpaid regulators, gathering together scientific papers and lobbying schools to have Wi-Fi systems taken down. In 2006, a school in Chichester made headlines after its headteacher agreed to remove a network at the request of both parents and teachers. The headteacher told The Times he had acted out of concern for the parents’ views. “We also did a lot of research,” he added. “The authorities say it’s safe, but there have been no long-term studies to prove this.”
The case was something of a turning point. National newspapers began to pay attention to data collected by campaign groups that had long been fighting the mobile phone industry. The campaigners pointed out that the type of radiation emitted from Wi-Fi devices, although on a slightly different wavelength, was essentially the same as that used by mobile phones and their transmitter masts. Both systems use high-frequency microwaves that are “pulsed” rapidly on and off to transmit data.
This pulsed aspect of data transmission is important, because it means that, although a signal might appear to be low-powered when measured over a period of time, it could reach spikes of much higher levels when data is actually being transmitted. Campaigners were also at pains to show that Wi-Fi was just a part of a whole host of technologies using the same microwave system, including baby monitors, DECT cordless phones, and Bluetooth computer devices (see below).
In May 2007, the BBC’s Panorama programme investigated the signal strengths used by Wi-Fi equipment. Under the guidance of mobile phone concern group PowerWatch, the programme measured the intensity of microwaves 150 metres away from a mobile phone transmitter mast, and half a meter away from a laptop computer – realistic distances at which everyday exposure might occur. They found that the radiation from the Wi-Fi-enabled laptop was at least as high, if not higher, than that measured in the main beam of the mast (see below).
Bangladesh, Dhaka City
Saudi Arabia, Riyadh
Ethiopia, Addis Ababa
Cairns, Queensland, Australia
Antigua and Barbuda, St. John’s
Raleigh, North Carolina, USA
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