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The move comes as countries elsewhere around Europe race to upgrade their networks to 5G standards amid a furious rearguard diplomatic campaign by the US to stop them using Chinese technology provided by Huawei. Washington says the company, which is fundamental to most European networks’ upgrade plans, presents a grave security risk.
Switzerland is relatively advanced in Europe in adopting 5G. The wealthy alpine country has built more than 2,000 antennas to upgrade its network in the last year alone, and its telecoms providers have been promising their customers’ imminent 5G coverage for most of the past year.
However, a letter sent by the Swiss environment agency, Bafu, to the country’s cantonal governments at the end of January, has now in effect called time on the use of all new 5G towers, officials who have seen the letter told the Financial Times.
The agency is responsible for providing the cantons with safety criteria against which telecoms operators’ radiation emissions can be judged. Under Switzerland’s highly federalised structure, telecoms infrastructure is monitored for compliance and licensed by cantonal authorities, but Bern is responsible for setting the framework.
Bafu has said it cannot yet provide universal criteria without further testing of the impact of 5G radiation.
The agency said it was “not aware of any standard worldwide” that could be used to benchmark recommendations. “Therefore Bafu will examine exposure through adaptive [5G] antennas in depth, if possible in real-world operational conditions. This work will take some time,” it said.
Without the criteria, cantons are left with little option but to license 5G infrastructure according to existing guidelines on radiation exposure, which all but preclude the use of 5G except in a tiny minority of cases.
Several cantons have already imposed their own voluntary moratoria because of uncertainty over health risks.
Swiss law on the effects of radiation from telecoms masts is broadly in line with that of European peers, but specifies the application of more stringent precautionary measures in certain cases. New 5G communications technology means individuals are exposed to more concentrated beams of non-ionising radiation, but for shorter periods. Bafu must determine which legal standards to apply to this.
Swisscom, the country’s largest mobile operator, said it understood “the fears that are often expressed about new technologies”.
“There is no evidence that antenna radiation within the limit values adversely affects human health,” the company added, pointing out that 5G is run on frequencies similar to the current 4G standard, which has been subject to “several thousand studies.”
The company said Switzerland’s regulatory limits were “10 times stricter than those recommended by the World Health Organization in places where people stay for longer periods of time”.
Switzerland already has a notable anti-5G lobby, with recent protests against its rollout in Bern, Zurich and Geneva.
The Swiss Medical Association has advised caution on 5G, arguing that the most stringent legal principles should be applied because of unanswered questions about the technology’s potential to cause damage to the nervous system, or even cancers.
Five “popular initiatives” — proposals for legally binding referendums on 5G use — are already in motion in Switzerland. Two have already been formalised and are in the process of collecting the 100,000 signatures needed to trigger nationwide votes that if successful will amend Switzerland’s constitution.
One will make telecoms companies legally liable for claims of bodily damage caused by radiation from masts unless they can prove otherwise. The other proposes strict and stringent limits on radiation emissions from masts and will give local residents veto power over all new constructions in their area.