Natalie Rogers (Hawke's Bay Today, September 4) has called for Spark to do more community engagement when building new cell sites, based on her recent experience in Havelock North.
Although Spark has followed well-established processes for notifying nearby residents, we accept we can always look to improve and there are some things we might look to a bit differently in future.
That said, the Havelock North controversy is grounded in some baseless fears and misinformation about cell sites. The same issues crop up around the country on a small minority (fewer than 1 in 10) of Spark's new cell site proposals.
Across New Zealand, there is unprecedented growth in customers using their mobile phones and wireless devices more and more in their daily lives. In Havelock North, for instance, demand has risen a staggering ten-fold in just the past three years.
This rapid growth puts pressure on our cell site infrastructure.
Each year, Spark must build dozens of new sites around the country – most of these are "infill" sites, within areas where existing cell sites are reaching capacity.
Without these new sites, customers will suffer degraded services – slower speeds, intermittent data coverage, and those located at the fringes of the signal range may lose coverage entirely.
As new cell sites typically cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, we only construct them where and when they are absolutely necessary.
We go through a rigorous evaluation process to select a location that provides the required coverage improvements from a technical perspective, avoids interference with other cell sites or electrical equipment (not just Spark's), and minimises visual impact on the community.
There are no health concerns with any cell site.
Radio emissions close to a site are typically a small fraction (less than 5 per cent) of the exposure limits under New Zealand standards – these standards incorporate substantial safety margins and are endorsed by the Ministry of Health.
Furthermore, the laws of physics dictate that as you move further away from a site, the emissions intensity falls quickly to even more negligible levels.
The radio waves used for mobile services are based on technology that has been used for over 100 years and are all around us in our everyday lives. Similarly, low levels of emissions are involved with Wi-Fi, AM and FM radio, television broadcasting, cordless phones, radio-controlled toys and baby monitors.
The proposed Havelock North cell site is being built on the roadside berm by replacing an existing streetlight with a new pole which includes a cell antenna extending a few metres above the height of the existing light.
This is a design used at hundreds of locations around the country as they are seen to be much less obtrusive than a stand-alone tower. Natalie might say it's a "shocker", but we would respectfully disagree.
As per our usual practice, Spark notified a number of residents close to the proposed cell site through two mail outs in March and April this year – no concerns were raised by these residents.
The extent of the notification process is always a judgment call and we acknowledge we could have notified more nearby residents in this case (although we would draw the line at Natalie's suggestion that a councillor living 500m away, who would not even be able to see the site, should have been included).
To address some of Natalie's other concerns:
· She suggests the site will have a health impact on the "young developing brains" of children at a nearby kindergarten. Not true (for the reasons mentioned above). It's worth noting that some months ago a cell site for another mobile operator was installed right next door to the kindergarten, much closer than Spark's proposed site – and to our knowledge no issues were raised then.
· She claims owners will see their property values reduce drastically and demands compensation. A research study a few years ago found no evidence of this; indeed, as mobile communications become more and more important to people, the opposite could be argued - with better connectivity having a positive effect on property values.
· Finally, Natalie claims, Spark was forced to stop building a cell site in Tairua (Coromandel) "because it had not met the conditions". We have fully complied with all conditions and went to extensive lengths to review alternative Tairua sites. We have put a hold on construction following recent protest action and we are considering next steps.
In terms of what happens now at Havelock North, Spark met this week (Thursday) with community representatives and local residents. An alternative site has been suggested and we have undertaken to halt further work while we assess the technical feasibility of this site. This assessment will take place over the next few weeks, following which we will come back to the local community to discuss next steps.
Deciding on the location of a new cell site will always be a delicate balancing exercise: it needs to be close to the people using it so they get a decent signal, yet the same people often don't want it in their 'backyard'. Spark works hard to get the balance right.