What are base stations?
A mobile phone base station—or tower—provides coverage for one or more geographical areas. A mobile phone network is made up of base stations operating together to provide service to users moving from place to place within a coverage area. Mobile phone base stations must be carefully located in relation to each other, to ensure minimum interference and good coverage for users.
How do mobile phone base stations emit EME?
Generally, several base station antennas are mounted on a tower that is between 15 and 50 metres high, or on rooftops. When transmitting, these antennas emit radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic energy (EME) in a fan-shaped beam, roughly parallel to the ground. Because of the narrow vertical spread of the beam, the EME exposure levels on the ground directly below the antennas is usually low. EME exposure to the public from base stations is typically hundreds of times below the limits set by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).
How does the ACMA regulate EME for base stations?
The regulatory arrangements for the installation of mobile phone base stations can be summarised as follows:
- Mobile base stations must not exceed the EME safety exposure limits set by ARPANSA.
- The location and installation of new free-standing mobile base stations and other facilities that are not classified as ‘low-impact’ is subject to state, territory and local government planning laws.
- The installation of mobile base stations that are low-impact facilities must comply with Schedule 3 to the Telecommunications Act and the Telecommunications Code of Practice 2018 (the Code of Practice).
- Consultation on the siting of mobile base stations is subject to the Mobile Phone Base Station Deployment Code.
Low-impact facilities are those which, because of their size and location, are considered to have a low visual impact and be less likely to raise significant planning, heritage or environmental concerns. Examples of low-impact facilities include:
- small radiocommunications dishes and antennae
- equipment mounted on existing structures such as buildings, poles or towers
- an extension of up to five metres on an existing tower, provided the tower has not been previously extended.
The installation of low-impact facilities must comply with the Code of Practice, which imposes a number of obligations on carriers, such as providing landowners and occupiers with notice before installing a facility.
Freestanding mobile phone towers are not classified as low-impact facilities and their installation is subject to state, territory and local government planning approval processes. The ACMA plays no regulatory role in relation to the installation of such facilities. More information on the approval processes can be obtained from the relevant state or territory government agency.
The Mobile Phone Base Station Deployment Code sets out the steps a carrier must take in deciding where to place a mobile phone tower. It includes obligations to minimise EME exposure, conduct public consultation and handle complaints.
How can we be confident that base stations are operating within the safety limits?
Before commissioning a new base station or upgrading an existing base station, carriers are required to produce an Environmental EME Report that shows the predicted levels of EME around the new or upgraded facility.
The ACMA conducted an EME base station compliance program from May 2013 to February 2014, which focused on compliance by mobile phone carriers with the EME exposure licence conditions. This was conducted to ensure that EME exposure from base stations does not exceed the limits set in the ARPANSA Standard.
As a result of the compliance program, the ACMA is confident that mobile carriers:
- have established a high level of compliance with the EME licence conditions
- have a clear understanding about EME compliance obligations and associated record-keeping requirements
- have processes in place to ensure that compliance assessments accurately reflect current environmental and site conditions
- are appropriately addressing the underlying risk of EME exposure from mobile phone base stations.
In addition, ARPANSA has conducted a coordinated survey of environmental radio frequency EME (RF EME) levels arising from mobile phone base station antennas. All measurements collected in this survey were found to be well below the limits defined in the ARPANSA Standard. The choice of exact measurement locations, analysis of results and preparation of summary data for internet publication has been carried out by ARPANSA.
As mobile phone base stations and other EME emitting installations become more widespread, some people may be concerned about possible concurrent exposure to EME from multiple sources. ARPANSA has found that exposure to EME in the environment from various sources is very low and typically much lower than the allowable limits in the ARPANSA Standard.
Where can I go for more information?
The ACMA’s register of radiocommunications licences lists operational radiocommunications facilities. If a facility is currently being installed, it is unlikely to appear on the register. Most carriers forward their registrations to the ACMA in batches at regular intervals, so the register may not list all radiocommunications facilities current at any particular time.
The communications industry has developed a national site archive to improve access to information about the deployment of mobile phone infrastructure across Australia. The archive contains information about most mobile phone towers deployed by carriers and includes information such as EME reports about a particular communications facility.
More information on mobile phone towers can be found on the ACMA website.
The Commonwealth Department of Communications has produced a video explaining EME regulation in Australia with particular focus on base stations.