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Row breaks out in mobile phone dispute

A fresh row has broken out between Switzerland's mobile phone companies and environmental groups. In the latest twist, the phone companies have invited their detractors to attend round table talks to try to reconcile their positions.

This content was published on February 21, 2000 - 10:57

A fresh row has broken out between Switzerland's mobile phone companies and environmental groups. In the latest twist in an increasingly acrimonious dispute over issues such as electrosmog, the electromagnetic microwaves generated by the phones, the phone companies have invited their detractors to attend round table talks to try to reconcile their positions.

The three mobile phone companies - Swisscom, Diax and Orange - called the meeting on February 28, in response to growing public concern about the infrastructure needed to service their networks of mobile phones.

But their advances have been greeted with scepticism by consumer groups and environmental organisations. Groups such as Pro Natura and the Swiss Energy Foundation have rejected the invitation outright, while Switzerland's main consumer organisation has agreed to attend, but has warned that it will pull out immediately, if it feels the phone companies are trying to manipulate the debate.

The most contentious issue surrounding mobile phone use is electrosmog, the radiation given off by the phones and their antennas. There is little scientific evidence to support claims that electrosmog is harmful, but both Diax and consumer groups agree that a small minority of people can become ill due to exposure to this radiation.

Another issue, of particular concern outside the cities, is the growing numbers of antennas being erected in the countryside. Environmental groups object to these both on aesthetic grounds, and the effect they may have on wildlife.

The man charged with organising the meeting is crisis management consultant, Peter Metzinger. He says the phone companies are serious about finding solutions to problems.

"They approached me to set up this meeting, and I'm convinced they are serious addressing the public's concerns about issues like electrosmog."

The environmental groups take a different view. Organisations such as Pro Natura and the Swiss Energy Foundation say it is inappropriate for the phone companies to be hosting such a meeting.

"The responsibility for dealing with these issues lies with the government," says Inge Tschernitschegg, of the Swiss Energy Foundation. "They need to set the rules in consultation with the all the parties concerned."

Her words are echoed Otto Sieber, general secretary of Pro Natura. "The government deregulated the mobile phone industry without understanding the implications. It's up to them to ensure the public and the environment are protected against the expanding infrastructure of this industry."

Switzerland's main consumer organisation is also sceptical of the phone companies' motives. Spokesman, Peter Vollmer, who is also a Social Democrat member of parliament, says he will attend the meeting "to hear what the phone companies have to say. But if it turns out that they are trying to manipulate the debate, we'll pull out immediately."

It's difficult to see how this meeting can resolve anything, given the nature of the issues, and the fact that the phone companies' main detractors won't be coming.

Nevertheless, organiser Peter Metzinger is confident solutions can be found. "Problems like these have been dealt with successfully on the local level. In various cities and cantons, agreements have been reached about where antennas should or shouldn't be located. And steps have been taken to disguise them, or hide them from view."

An idea of how pressing these issues are, can be gleaned from the statistics for mobile phone use in Switzerland. An estimated 40 per cent of Swiss now own one, and their use is growing daily.

By Jonas Hughes

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