What South Africans think about the plan to let networks build 5G towers on their property

Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams recently published a proposed policy for public comment regarding the rapid deployment of communications networks in South Africa.

This policy paves the way for the long-awaited Rapid Deployment Guidelines developed by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA).

Among other provisions, the proposed policy aims to expand the existing rights of network operators to access private property to construct network infrastructure.

This includes not only erecting cellular masts but also rolling out fibre cables.

Any infrastructure built on private land still belongs to the network that built it.

Landowners are also entitled to reasonable compensation where network infrastructure denies them the use of that land.

“Reasonable access fees may be charged in cases where more intrusive electronic communications networks or facilities, such as masts, are erected on the property. In such cases any access fee must be reasonable in proportion to the disadvantage suffered and must not enrich the property owner or exploit the electronic communications network service licensee,” the policy states.

The proposed policy also tries to ensure that landowners don’t cause damage to the infrastructure.

“If such electronic communications networks or facilities are damaged due to the fault of a property owner, reasonable compensation agreed to between the property owner and the electronic communications network service licensee is payable,” the policy states.

Similarly, if the networks cause damage to the landowner’s property, it must provide reasonable compensation for the damages.

The policy also outlines that dispute procedures must be in place for landowners and network providers alike to address various objections on either side.

Have your say

The proposed policy is open for public comment until 21 August 2020.

For those interested in providing their input, the proposed policy is embedded below.

Public participation platform Dear South Africa lets you submit your comments directly to the chief director of telecommunications and IT policy at the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies.

Dear South Africa has submitted over 55,000 responses to the proposed policy, the majority of which (94%) are negative. The charts below summarise how people responded, and which regions of South Africa respondents are from.

Property rights and health concerns

To get an idea of the main issues respondents are raising in their submissions to the department, MyBroadband constructed a word cloud of the comments and suggestions that were submitted.

The word cloud shows that the biggest concern people raised was that of property rights, with health concerns a close second.

5G safety questions

Similar to when LTE technology started being rolled out, and 3G technology before that, activists have made allegations that 5G technology is unsafe.

These allegations have extended to false claims that 5G caused the coronavirus, or weakened people’s immune systems to make them more susceptible to the coronavirus.

There have also been disinformation campaigns surrounding anti-vaccine conspiracies involving Bill Gates and implanting tracking chips inside every human on Earth.

While some activists and conspiracy theorists have made wild allegations, others simply stated that no studies have been conducted regarding the safety of 5G technology.

The South African Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize, was asked this question in parliament and he stated that several studies have been done internationally on the effects of 5G radiation and published in accredited scientific journals.

Mkhize explained that the World Health Organisation acknowledges two bodies that have produced electromagnetic fields exposure guidelines that countries must adhere to: The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (2020) guidelines for limiting exposure to Electromagnetic Fields, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

The conclusion of Mkhize’s statement was as follows:

Tissue heating was identified as the main mechanism of interaction between radiofrequency fields and the human body. Radiofrequency exposure levels from current technologies resulted in negligible temperature rise in the human body. As the frequency increases, there is less penetration into the body tissues and absorption of the energy becomes more confined to the surface of the body (skin and eye). Provided that the overall exposure remains below international guidelines, no consequences for public health are anticipated.

Mkhize also provided a full list of references to studies on the health effects of electromagnetic radiation. His response to parliament is also embedded below.

Cutting through the red tape

South Africa’s rapid deployment guidelines for telecommunications networks have languished in bureaucratic purgatory for more than ten years.

In 2008, the former Minister of Communications, Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, published “Proposed Guidelines For Rapid Deployment of Electronic Communications Facilities”.

However, the proposed guidelines were seen in certain spheres as an attempt to hijack the rapid deployment regulations to influence undersea cable landings in South Africa.

These guidelines from 2008 would have vested total authority in the Minister to decide which undersea cables may be landed and operate in South Africa.

They also stipulated that for an undersea cable to qualify for authorisation, African entities must have a combined equity ownership of 51% in the cable.

In effect, the guidelines would have blocked the SEACOM cable from landing and operating in South Africa. The arrival of SEACOM in South Africa is credited with a drastic reduction in the cost of bandwidth, leading to the launch of uncapped ADSL in 2010.

The former Ministry of Communication eventually withdrew these proposed guidelines on 11 August 2011 and set ICASA with the task of developing the Rapid Deployment Guidelines.

There the Rapid Deployment Guidelines got stuck for the better part of a decade.

Industry insiders have said that ICASA councillors did actually develop draft regulations, but due to a lack of political will and political interference, ICASA’s draft guidelines never saw the light of day.

There was another attempt in 2015 to develop Rapid Deployment Guidelines, but it never progressed further than a discussion paper.

Ndabeni-Abrahams’ publication of a draft policy and policy direction for the rapid deployment of networks came as a welcome surprise to those in South Africa’s telecommunications industry.

Proposed policy and policy direction

The proposed policy and policy direction on the rapid deployment of electronic communications networks and facilities is embedded below:

Health Minister’s response to questions of 5G safety

Now read: What the 5G spectrum delay means for mobile networks

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What South Africans think about the plan to let networks build 5G towers on their property