NBN wireless nets NIMBY-pamby opposition

NBN wireless nets NIMBY-pamby opposition

Summary: Inevitable protests against NBN Co wireless towers remind us why the Coalition's wireless-NBN alternative would never have worked. But with 2500 towers planned and opposition already mounting, could obstacles placed by NIMBY protesters make NBN Co's delivery timelines slip dramatically?


When The Wild One's Marlon Brando was famously asked what he was rebelling against, he asked, simply, "Whaddya got?" These days, proponents of the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) movement — whose adherents argue that the dangerous equipment, hazardous substances and morally questionable practices associated with modern life are fine so long as other people have to deal with them — have added the NBN to their list of things to rebel against.

If an NBN tower can be too close for comfort way out here, what are city dwellers to think? (Screenshot by David Braue/ZDNet Australia)

They've certainly had no shortage of things to complain about over the years. Toxic sludge, radioactive waste, and even old tyres have encouraged placard-waving protesters worried about the Western world's habit of delivering modern services such as electricity and petrochemical manufacturing, then trying to figure out what to do with their by-products.

Now, the NBN's wireless component is starting to attract the same kind of ire that drew protesters to US Superfund sites, which attracted the wrath of hundreds to the Jabiluka uranium mine, spurred complaints about the Muckaty nuclear waste dump, seen protesters chaining themselves to trees in Melbourne's Albert Park, and generally accompanied the empowerment of the anti-capitalist left over the past few decades.

Just weeks after NBN subcontractors started lodging council applications for the construction of 40-metre-high mobile towers to support the NBN's wireless components, we're already seeing resistance from individuals and will probably see grassroots groups campaigning to block the applications at every opportunity. Aided by potential legislation such as the Greens-sponsored Telecommunications Amendment (Mobile Phone Towers) 2011 Bill, opponents of the mobile towers could push delivery of the NBN's wireless mobile component well beyond its current planned 2015 deadline.

Expect many councils to capitulate as they bow to the pressures put on them by vocal minorities in the regions — and, in turn, expect many battles to be taken to peak bodies such as the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). Such bodies generally have the final say in planning matters — however, appealing to them to override local planning decisions is both expensive and time-consuming. Just imagine the hit to NBN Co's business — and timelines — if the Coalition were to organise grassroots opposition to the network's 2500 planned towers, deferring the wireless NBN indefinitely.

I'm not sure, however, that it would dare: the Coalition was, if you recall, originally espousing an NBN alternative that relied heavily on fixed-wireless deployments. Malcolm Turnbull has taken no public pleasure from the latest furore over tower sitings, probably because even the fiercest NBN opponent must concede that a nationwide communications infrastructure relying heavily on wireless would run into the same kinds of problems — but an order of magnitude more frequently given the larger population of complainants and the larger number of towers required.

Just imagine the hit to NBN Co's business — and timelines — if the Coalition were to organise grassroots opposition to the network's 2500 planned towers, deferring the wireless NBN indefinitely.

This whole affair is just an interesting artefact of that curious Western mentality: we expect first-world services, even in rural areas, but are not willing to tolerate the infrastructure, by-products or logistical niceties necessary to make them happen. We want five-bar coverage and high-speed wireless internet wherever we need it, as long as it comes from towers that are at a safe distance from our backyards — or, in the case of the Smeaton, Victoria family now pressing its case against the towers, not even in our neighbours' backyards.

Rural residents have been crying out for better communications for years and now that they're being delivered, the NIMBY army could become the proverbial spanner in the works with a few tribunal applications. That battle would likely drag on for years, not only depriving residents of the better communications for which they've been crying out for years, but turning the project into an even bigger headache for all concerned.

Fast-forward five years and there will be many in these same areas crying out for the inequity of services they suffer.

The thing is: you simply cannot have your cake and eat it too. Metropolitan areas have seen their own share of protests over mobile towers, but the fact is that they're a necessary evil for the delivery of the kinds of communications services we now take for granted. City landscapes are littered with base stations of all stripes, and urban residents live their daily lives bathed in the radio-frequency glow of competing wireless networks delivering all kinds of frequencies from towers just dozens or hundreds of metres away.

Compare this with exceedingly rural areas like Smeaton, where it was proposed to install an NBN tower at a site half a kilometre out of town. Have a look: there's barely a structure to be seen. This place is hardly teeming with people.

I hate to spoil the party, but if these services are to be delivered — well, they have to be delivered from somewhere. Towers have to be in someone's backyard: preferably, yards with ready access to power, fibre backhaul and physical right of way so service technicians can get to the sites when they need to. Knee-jerk opposition to new facilities simply isn't going to deliver the outcomes that I'd say most people agree must be delivered. If they're NIMBY, then in whose?

Knee-jerk opposition to new facilities simply isn't going to deliver the outcomes that I'd say most people agree must be delivered.

Of course, resistance to mobile towers is hardly a new thing: the past decade has been dotted with protests over mobile-tower sitings, such as Optus' problems siting a proposed tower near Grafton Aerodrome. Indeed, people-power protests against the simultaneous and silly Telstra and Optus hybrid-fibre coaxial roll-out helped halt the networks far short of their potential.

In the same vein, battles over these NBN towers will be numerous and no doubt bitter. Neighbours will argue, councillors will hold heads in hands. I'm not sure whether any protesters will handcuff themselves to NBN Co facilities, but it's still early in the game and you just never know.

Does this sort of opposition rule out wireless NBN components altogether? Not necessarily: just as there will be many who hate the thought of mobile towers anywhere near their houses, there will inevitably be those who judge the perceived risk of base stations in their backyards and decide it's acceptable. But it will be a very real test of how much the inevitable opposition can shape the NBN's direction and how much this affects the footprint of the eventual deployment.

What do you think? Are opponents overstating the risks from mobile towers? Should NBN Co change its wireless plans to stay even further from populated areas? Or do rural Australians just need to learn to live with wireless towers like city dwellers did long ago?

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Networking


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • The funny thing is, you're more likely to experience lower levels of radiation directly below the tower where it is installed, compared to 500m down the road. My best guess is that the location was selected so that, by pointing to the tower/antenna in the right direction, it could service Seaton, Allendale and Broomfield. If so, the antennas would be configured for a relatively high-gain (very directional), rather than low gain (not very directional).
  • Exactly right!

    $10 says these are the same people that will complain that they've missed out!

    Some people need to get over themselves!
  • Maybe NBN Co can dress the towers up as windmills then they'll be less unsightly and more acceptable.

    Someone also needs to go there and hold a town meeting with the local folks so that they can stop worrying about health issues.
  • They should try the camouflaged towers I saw recently in South Africa... http://www.amusingplanet.com/2010/01/camouflaged-cell-phone-towers.html
  • I happen to be one of those people opposing the Wireless Towers. They have applied to errect one right on the doorstep of 5 Gordon residents. This proposed tower is to be 40 metre's high (huge). Its alright for all those who have made these off hand comments above. I am in favour of proper research into the possible effects of these towers. I would welcome ll77 coming and putting our minds at rest. No, meko1 I do not want windmills either. DanielB1 so you do accept they will send out levels of radiation. I think that location depends on who needs $8000 enough to have it on their land. My health comes first!!! Also I think I heard Julia say that underground optic cable was to be run out. Has the govenment decided to adopt the oppositions idea's. Yes we have been exposed to all of the above horrors but does it have to continue.
    • Disclaimer for those who don't know. I am a "staunch" NBN supporter.

      But even so, I have sympathy for AngryA, who is surely within his/her rights to reject a tower if they so feel, whether the health implications are real or not!

      However, going back to the NBN, this is where those who say FTTP will become obsolete because of wireless, are proven to be playing with themselves.

      Apart from all the technical limitations of wireless mentioned over and over, if the limited number of towers NBNCo are looking to install (which also need fibre btw) for our country friends, are having trouble gaining construction approval on large rural properties, imagine trying to replace the current NBN with complete wireless everywhere and needing multiple towers in every street?
    • For the record like Beta I am also in favor of the NBN, I am not a fan of wireless however and I don’t buy into these health claims...

      "I am in favour of proper research into the possible effects of these towers."

      Define "proper research".

      "Also I think I heard Julia say that underground optic cable was to be run out."

      To 93% of premises in Australia the other 7% get fixed wireless and satellite...

      "My health comes first!!! "

      OK hypothetical time. Let's just say NBNco and the government listen to your concerns and don’t construct a wireless tower in your area and decide to cover it with satellite instead. You'll still be getting the 12/1mbps just like would with fixed wireless so would you be OK with this?
      Hubert Cumberdale
    • AngryA,

      I was under the impression that the proposed towers would be in the outskirts of town as mentioned in the article ("half a kilometre out of town..."). But if it's being erected in the middle of someone's private property, then it's a different story.

      I don't agree with putting large structures on people's properties, but if the town representatives can't work it out then I suppose they can all sign a waiver if they don't see the value..?

      I'm neutral politics-wise but as far as I can see Malcolm Turnbull is proposing the exact same thing with the wireless solution. How about that?

      As for radiation... you get it all the time, from mobile phones to radio to mobile towers all over cities. (Others have already posted better counter-arguments so I won't go on.)
  • You'll also be the first one to complain when you can't get a good connection.
  • AngryA,

    In case you didnt know. AM & FM transmits at A LOT higher power than these will so if you want to be safe better try and get the radio transmitters switched off. Of course they emit.

    I don't get your comment about underground fibre optic cable? That's what the whole NBN is? The opposition wants to keep the copper network which wont be able to cope with the demands that fibre can.
  • Angry A.
    The whole argument pales into insignificance when we consider the elephant in the room, or rather in the sky. Namely the Sun. Irradiated power at the surface of the earth from the sun is over 1 kilowatt per square metre.

    The Sun emits radiation across the whole electomagnetic spectrum including ionising radiation particularly in the Ultraviolet range which is what gives us skin cancer. Heat, radiowaves, and light are all names we give to parts of the Suns spectrum that we encounter on a daily basis. Basically the higher the frequency, the higher the energy of the radiation.

    Mobile phones and other communications radio devices transmit below the frequency of light and at fractions of a watt. The power of radiation decreases exponentially with distance from the transmitter so if this means if you move 1 metre away from a source the radiation drops say 10 times for example. A mobile phone transmits in a very narrow frequency range and which is also non ionising radiation, so do mobile phone towers.

    Effective radiated power into your body from a mobile phone held right against your head is in the order of milliwatts where as the power of the sun on the top of your exposed head just by going outside on a sunny day is in the order of up to 50 watts. This means you are recieving approximately 500 to a 1000 times more radiation just by going outside in the sun, including nasty ionising radiation.

    So, basically if I had the choice I'd take the $8000 and stay inside on my mobile phone.
    • How about the countering elephant in the room: the ozone layer, which basically has shielded us from a lot of the harmful radiation and made the earth suitable for life as we know it to exist? That is, until we inadvertently flourocarboned it.

      The great majority of the 50W is IR, which while possibly uncomfortable, is NOT putting you at risk of cancer.

      Re the towers, depending upon the directionality of radiation, moving away from a source of radiation will drop the % received by somewhere beween the 1:1 (linearly directional - low dispersion & low leakage) to inversely proportional to the distance cubed (omni-directional - extreme leakage).

      Now, since these towers are trying to beam signals of sufficient strength over a wide area, mainly horizontally, the intensity is more likely to be inversely proportional to the square of the distance. That means the intensity at 100m from the tower will be 10,000 times that at 10km, whereas at 5km it will only be 4 times. Therefore, near a tower, the radiation level of RF is much greater than radiating on someone on a phone in most of the reception area. So a neighbour next to a property with a tower should have a big say (including a chance at some of the remuneration) as those who take the money! All sources have some leakage, which is why the towers have to be so high, so that those close to them do not get absolutely drenched in RF AND that too much of the signal is not absorbed before it gets close to the majority of the reception area.

      Basically, the safest place for a tower is on a hill with no-one within a km or two.

      One of the problems that came with the digital communications system is that the infrastructure is NOT shared, in that each telco radiates their own signal over those of subscribers to other telcos, meaning that in an area serviced by multiple providers, everybody is getting severals times more RF radiation than they actually need for their personal use. As well, the radiation is bumped up to ensure it can be used inside buildings, which absorb RF, as do humans! Compare this to the analog system which had a shared infrastructure, allowing lower overall saturation.

      This is one mitigating factor in using one telco for actual wireless provision in an area. It means that when more subscribers come online, more towers are required, but the size of the cells can decrease, thus requiring less power per tower, resulting in no increase in the average radiation level. While the same dynamics could be applied in multiple supplier scenarios, it is far less likely to be implemented in a timely manner, if at all. A government supplier can be forced to manage overall RF levels. Hopefully, that is part of the NBN remit.

      The problem with leaving it to private enterprise is that they have a much shorter ROI time frame, and far less control over how they get masses of new customers to move into their coverage areas. In short, they are only looking at medium term and their capacity planning is just what is current plus a %, NOT how to make a quantum leap in capability to kick start a sea change.
    • 1. And that other elephant in the room, the ozone layer, mitigates against that. That is, until we inadvertantly flourocarboned it. You are FUDding it here!

      2. That 50 W is mainly heat, which while it may be uncomfortable, will not damage you. FUD.

      3. Because most towers are trying to radiate of as wide a horizontal area as possible, the intensity would be inversely proportional to the square of the distance. Therefore, the intensity at 100m would be 10,000 times that at 10km, only 4 times at 5km, and 1,000,000 at 10m. Basically, the towers are built high to mitigate this, but really need to be a safe distance from people so vertical leakage will not cause harm.
      Basically, if you had thought your agument through, you would be supporting maintaining a minimum distance to towers.

      4. Power radiated from your mobile phone increases with distance from a tower, as it tries to maintain connection. However, mobile towers radiate much more.

      5. The old analog mobile system used a common transmitting infrastructure, minimising the total power required. The digital systems overlay their power over everybody (including those of other telcos), meaning that in a multi-telco area, each user is getting more radiation that they actually need for their own communication.
      The NBN path of being the principle wireless provider in an area means that country people will get less radiation than city people, but not if you are near a tower!
      • I did the post above because I thought the one earlier than than had gone to the bit-bucket.
  • Its always nice to get your facts right, being a journalist and all

    The coalitions wireless solution is the exact same as the Labor's wireless solution (in regards to % of population being put under wireless and it being government funded)
  • So it a socialist plot, because it should be left to private enterprise, shouldn't it?
    • ALL democratic governments are, by definition, socialist because they have a duty of care for their citizens. Since we KNOW (we CAN learn something from history) that private enterprise, if left completely to their own devices, WILL, in general, cause harm to their workers, customers and other citizens, there has to be a measure of control imposed upon them.

      I know there seems to a lot of Ann Rand inspired romanticism about the benefits of entrepreneurs, but they have generally been the self-serving pricks that got us into many of society's problems in the first place, the GFC being a significant case in point!

      The problem is in finding the right balance, but in Australia, the tyranny of distance within our own shores has meant that significant infrastructure changes involve heavy government expenditure, and trying to rely on co-opted private enterprise has meant that instead of the governent (and thereby its citizens) getting the ROI, we are footing the ongoing bill to foreign companies for decades.
  • I am yet to find a study that concludes that Wireless Towers and other communication radio devices are good for your heath. However many studies have been carried out that point to health issues associated with them. So we should not place these towers close to where people live until we have more certainty about their longterm effect.

    I am in favour of having NBN but not at the expence of peoples health. The Government promise was to place cable underground, Julia stated this on television, another Julia broken promise.

    The NBN rollout places (Optic Fibre) cable underground in cities and country towns with larger populations. Towers are being placed in other areas. Does this mean that there is now a penalty to pay for living in the country.

    If there are to be towers, then let them be a long distance from where people are living.
    • "The Government promise was to place cable underground"

      The Government promise was 93% FTTH and 7% fixed wireless and satellite and that's exactly what we are getting.

      "If there are to be towers, then let them be a long distance from where people are living."

      How about space? Is that distance long enough? You still haven't answered the question if you would be ok with a satellite service instead.
      Hubert Cumberdale
    • Ok, since I'm a Network Engineer for a ... *Cough* Faceless Corporation, I'll point out some flaws in your logic.

      "I am yet to find a study that concludes that Wireless Towers and other communication radio devices are good for your heath ... So we should not place these towers close to where people live until we have more certainty about their longterm effect."

      There have been exactly zero studies that have conclusively proved either way as to negative or positive impacts of Wireless Communication Mediums. Zero. Not some , not many, not a lot - Zero. The only one that was said to be close, was the World Health Organisation's release last year in June, which was disproven a week later. So If the WHO cant figure it out, there is ZERO concrete evidence to point it to anything more than a handy feature on your phone.

      While I understand your Fear / Uncertainty / Doubt, you are already being bathed in communications mediums which are wireless already. TV, Weather, Satellite , Wireless and Mobile tech are already swimming around you as it is. As many have stated earlier, the Sun has been conclusively proven to do you harm, not mobile phone towers. Feel free to ask away if you want me to be more specific.

      "I am in favour of having NBN but not at the expence of peoples health... another Julia broken promise."

      Now cmon, Im no political fanboy, but there is no need to drag the PM through the mud for something she didnt say. Leave that to the Opposition asshats, they seem to be good at it. Fibre was NEVER to be laid to 100% of the population. This was stated with rudd, stated with conroy and stated with Gillard. NEVER. They have stuck to that promise, its too expensive. Towns with a small population like yourself would cost far too much to be covered by fibre; if i was you, id be more interested as to when you get LTE - because you'll have faster internet than the rest of us for a long time to come. Its good that you are infavour of the NBN tho, i dont think city-folk give you country guys enough credit - Theres some smart people in the bush; I place towers or modify existing towers in towns like yours. Locals love the attention most of the time. There are some nay-sayers, but thats what the PR team is for - to communicate the technology to the masses :)

      "The NBN rollout places (Optic Fibre) ...Does this mean that there is now a penalty to pay for living in the country... Then let them be a long distance from where people are living."

      Unfortunately, theres no good way to reply to your question. Towers have been in city areas for a long time. The government needs to give you a service. You cant be left behind, destined to fade away all because people dont want to keep up with technology. If NBNCo had said, hey guys we're not going to give you a service at all thats better than what you have - there would be mass campaigning to change it. You cant have it both ways, you either want to be involved here - or you dont. The alternative is much more expensive, which would cause more complaining about wastage of taxpayer money if you werent covered.