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11 March 2018

Switzerland: The Digital Revolution Is Being Threatened

The Digital Revolution in Switzerland is Being Threatened
by Anouch Seydtaghia, Le Temps, 9 March 2018 (translation)

The Council of States has refused to relax an ordinance on radiation emitted by mobile phone antennas, jeopardizing the launch, in 2020, of 5G.  The telecoms operators are furious, but health groups are calling for caution.

Only one vote was needed.  By 22 votes to 21, the Council of States refused Monday [5 March] to relax the regulations on mobile phone antennas.  Switzerland will thus keep an ordinance fixing the maximum values of non-ionizing radiation that are ten times lower than in the European Union.  This vote of seemingly little importance could have major consequences on the digitization of the country, warns the telecoms operators for whom the deployment of the 5G network is now jeopardized.  Their opponents state that the health of the population must take precedence.

Before Monday's vote, Swisscom had conducted an important lobbying work, contacting each senator.  In vain.  Now the operator warns:  "The mobile phone networks risk collapse." In its arguments, the company stated that "in view of the limit values of the Ordinance on Protection against Non-Ionizing Radiation (ORNI), 90% of our sites in urban areas cannot be equipped with 5G antennas because they simply do not have the capacity for it."

"Regression of capacities"

Andreas Schönenberger, director of Salt, is even more direct:  "Given the constant increase in data usage by users, which more than doubles every 12 months, as well as the growth of the population, it is necessary in places - alas - to anticipate stagnation, even regression, in the capacity available for a user, no matter which operator."  "Disappointed" by the vote, Andreas Schönenberger considers that it "will complicate the future development of the mobile networks in Switzerland and risks delaying the digital strategy adopted by the Federal Council."

The future 5G, offering ten times faster speeds than today, will allow self-driving cars to circulate smoothly and millions of devices to communicate with one another.  Initially foreseen for 2020, this technology is jeopardized according to the operators.  "With the actual regulations, we would only be able to deploy it piecemeal in urban centers.  The initial plans will have to be completely reviewed", regrets the spokesperson for Swisscom who adds: "ORNI will force us to add more antennas.  This is absurd and totally impossible, given the difficulties that we are meeting to obtain permits."

Switzerland penalized?

Even "economiesuisse" questioned the senators before the vote on Monday, including the argument: "Member States of the European Union and many other countries are working hard to introduce new generation networks. If we want to prevent Switzerland from being penalized in the face of competition, we must quickly create the conditions for introducing 5G. "

According to Swisscom, a hypothetical change in the ordinance could take more than two years. The revision of the telecoms law, which will be discussed in Bern a priori at the end of this summer, could allow the limit values ​​to be changed. But without guarantee.

"Health must take precedence"

Would the senators be irresponsible?  On the contrary, affirmed Géraldine Savary (PS/VD).  "First, I am surprised by the strategy of the Federal Council, which has the competency to modify the ordinance but which prefers to pass the responsibility to the Parliament.  Why this lack of courage?  Is the executive branch itself not convinced that it should relax the limit values?"  The senator also explains that the Parliament has been waiting years for a report from the Federal Council on the consequences of non-ionizing radiation on health, "and it is rightly not responsible for modifying the limit values without having this information".

Géraldine Savary relativizes the argument of a Switzerland being outdated on a digital level.  "I am certain that there are alternative technical solutions to build 5G networks.  And the health of the population must take precedence over economic considerations. I am not at ease with the intense lobbying of the operators.  This decision is too important to be taken in a hurry."

The FMH asks to wait

The health milieu leans towards a status quo.  The Federation of Swiss doctors (FMH) had taken its position before Monday's vote.  For it, "a good coverage of the mobile phone network and access to the mobile Internet are important for economic development in Switzerland.  The FMH is asking for the establishment of a system to monitor non-ionizing radiation and complementary research on the impact of radiation on health".  For the Federation, "studies on this subject are ongoing, but the definitive versions are not yet available". The FMH concludes: "From a scientific point of view, it is preferable to renounce an increase in limit values before publication of the results."

Contacted, the World Health Organization (WHO) replied that "the limits in place in the European Union are based on directives based on scientific evidence.  The Swiss limits include more precautionary factors.  WHO is currently analyzing the potential effects on health caused by non-ionizing radiation."

"Deplorable" situation in Geneva

The operators are complaining about the difficulties erecting antennas in Switzerland.  And especially in Geneva where a municipal moratorium makes any installation of an antenna impossible on the buildings of the City of Geneva since June 1999.  "This moratorium deprives the telecoms operators of strategic placements for the development of their networks.  Compared with other municipalities, this tends to tarnish the customer experience in the city", states Andreas Schönenberger.

The director of Salt believes that "the development of mobile networks in the City of Geneva has been  considerably slowed down for the past several years" and that it is a question of a "deplorable situation for users in an international city like Geneva which seeks to stand out in global digital governance". Contacted, the City states that "the moratorium on mobile phone antennas on roofs and equipment owned by the City is still relevant. Operators know this and, in general, do not ask the city any more about it."

Original article in French:

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