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Understand health information on cell towers and mobile phones

At Spark our purpose is to help all of New Zealand win big in a digital world. To help enable New Zealand’s digital future Spark is building new wireless infrastructure and will launch 5G services.

We understand that for some of our customers, adding cell sites to our network and upgrading to the latest technology may raise questions around perceived health risks.

So on this page, we’ve outlined the following:

  • what we’re doing and why
  • some of the terminology
  • how we ensure strict compliance with national safety standards, which are based on international recommendations, at every stage of planning, building and operating our wireless network

We’ve also included some information about 5G, the fifth generation of mobile technology.

Upgrading and expanding the Spark network

At Spark we’re seeing an unprecedented growth in demand for digital services. This rise in data use is being driven by several factors. These include the following:

  • the proliferation of devices such as smartphones, iPads and smart watches
  • the new digital curriculum in schools
  • the popularity of streaming services such as Netflix, Lightbox and Spark Sport

We’re continuously upgrading our network to cater for Kiwis’ desire to take part in a digital world. This includes building new cell sites and working to bring 5G to New Zealand. These investments will help ensure we can continue to provide a world-class service for our customers.

How telecommunications equipment works

Mobile technology is based on radio technology that has been used for over 100 years for a range of everyday services. Examples include:

  • AM and FM radio
  • television broadcasting
  • WiFi
  • Bluetooth
  • cordless phones
  • radio-controlled toys
  • baby monitors

Unlike television and radio transmitters, mobile telecommunications equipment uses just enough power control to maintain call quality.

Electromagnetic fields (EMFs)

Scientists have been studying the effects of radio frequency electromagnetic fields (EMFs) on people for decades. Sometimes referred to as "radio waves", an EMF is a field produced by electric charges in motion. Sources of EMFs include:

  • scanners at airports
  • microwave ovens
  • radio stations

Learn more about EMFs from the World Health Organisation site

In New Zealand, the Ministry of Health Interagency Committee on the Health Effects of Non-Ionising Fields monitors research into electromagnetic fields (EMFs). The Committee reviews local and international research and makes recommendations whether New Zealand Standard remains appropriate for protection of human health. Find out more about EMF research

Non-ionising radiation

Non-ionising radiation lies below the ultraviolet (UV) range of frequencies, and also carries low energy radiation that does not upset the molecular structure of the human body. All mobile cellular transmissions lie in the non-ionising part of the radio spectrum. Learn more about non-ionising radiation from the Ministry of Health

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about cell towers and mobile phone safety.

Click or tap on the question to expand or collapse the entry.

The Spark wireless network is fully compliant with international and national limits. These limits are based on decades of scientific research.

The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Protection (ICNIRP) is a scientific body that independently monitors the research and provides international guidelines on exposure limits to human health. The ICNIRP is recognised by the World Health Organisation for its independence and expertise in this area. The New Zealand radiofrequency field exposure Standard NZS2772.1:1999 follows the ICNIRP recommendations and is endorsed by the Ministry of Health. Learn more about NZS 2772.1:1999

A second standard, AS/NZS2772.1:1999, says how the exposures should be assessed.

The standards limit exposure to radio frequency to a level 50 times lower than that at which any adverse effects on humans have been observed. The New Zealand Standard applies to the total exposure from all the different sources of radiofrequency fields to which someone is exposed. Spark’s policy is to comply with NZS 2772.1:1999. Based on our continuous and robust testing obligations, exposure levels from Spark’s cell towers are typically only a small fraction of the exposure limit. As part of our obligations to comply with national limits, Spark has also commissioned independent monitoring of exposures to radiofrequency fields around our cell sites. We aren’t informed when the monitoring will take place. We generally have no say in the sites that are selected for monitoring. Read more about Spark's independent monitoring programme

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the New Zealand Ministry of Health, there's been no clear evidence from thousands of scientific studies that cell sites present risks to human health.

Read about electromagnetic fields from the World Health Organisation

Read about electromagnetic fields from the NZ Ministry of Health

The World Health Organisation notes the following:

“A large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk. To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.” See the WHO fact sheet on EMF and health

Spark designs all its mobile cell transmitters to comply with National Environmental Standards for Telecommunications Facilities (NESTF). As noted above, limits on public exposures are set at levels more than 50 times lower than the recognised threshold for established effects. Based on our continuous and robust testing obligations, exposure levels from Spark’s cell towers are typically only a small fraction of the exposure limit.

In August 2019, the Ministry of Health noted that many countries use exposure limits similar to those in New Zealand. These countries include Australia, Canada, France and Germany. The Ministry notes that “an expert committee convened by the Environment-Brussels concluded that the research did not demonstrate any health effects below limits of the type used in New Zealand.”

In addition, the conclusion from the Interagency Committee on the Health Effects of Non-ionising Fields wrote in the Report to Ministers from 2018 that the findings of recent research do not cause the Committee to consider that current polices and recommendations should be changed, and they continue to support the use of exposure limits for Radio Frequency fields (EMFs) set in the current New Zealand Standard. Read more from the Interagency Committee

All Spark’s cell site infrastructure is designed to operate within national and international safety limits. These limits incorporate substantial safety margins.

Most scientific opinion, supported by the World Health Organisation, agrees there is no clear evidence from the thousands of scientific studies undertaken to date that mobile phones or cell sites present risks to human health. The New Zealand Ministry of Health concurs with this, saying that many reviews of the research have been done over the past few years, and that the reviews conclude that, overall, the results show that exposures which comply with current limits do not cause health effects.

As demand for mobile services reaches capacity, Spark is investing in new “infill” cell sites to boost coverage and capacity. Each new cell tower will have new equipment. While this increases the emission levels on the actual site, the strength of the radio signals decays with distance from cell sites.

5G is simply the fifth generation of mobile internet connectivity. Mobile phones in New Zealand are currently on either 3G or 4G. When 5G arrives, it’ll bring much greater data bandwidth and speed, as well as much faster response times than what are currently achievable. The greater speed and bandwidth will be possible because 5G will user higher frequencies which enable users to make faster wireless data transfers. 5G introduces a feature called beamforming that allows simultaneous users to enjoy enhanced data rates.

At first, 5G networks will use frequencies around the 3.5GHz spectrum band. This band is similar to what’s used by existing cell sites. Later, the network will introduce higher frequencies of 24 GHz and above, sometimes referred to as mmWave or millimetre wave.

No, this is false. Overexposure to X-rays is linked to cancer due to the displacement of electrons during exposure, which is called ionising radiation. The mmWave spectrum is non-ionising radiation (alongside radio waves and television signals) and the photon energy is not sufficient to dislodge the electrons.

Graphic showing the difference between non-ionising radiation (radio, mobile networks, infrared light, visible light) and ionising radiation (UV, X-rays, gamma rays)

This graphic shows the frequencies of different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Having trouble seeing this graphic on your phone or tablet? Zoom into the graphic

In August 2019, Ministry of Health noted that the existing research into the health effects of radio frequency fields (EMF) covers all the frequency bands proposed for 5G. They also noted that the New Zealand Standard for radio frequency field also covers the bands.

In June 2019, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) noted:

“Contrary to some claims, there are no established health effects from the radio waves that the 5G network uses. This network currently runs on radio waves similar to those used in the current 4G network, and in the future will use radio waves with higher frequencies. It is important to note that higher frequencies do not mean higher or more intense exposure. Higher frequency radio waves are already used in security screening units at airports, police radar guns to check speed, remote sensors and in medicine and these uses have been thoroughly tested and found to have no negative impacts on human health.”

In August 2019, the FCC announced that following a six-year review, new limits on radio frequency aren’t needed at this time. They said:

“The FCC sets radiofrequency limits in close consultation with the FDA and other health agencies. After a thorough review of the record and consultation with these agencies, we find it appropriate to maintain the existing radiofrequency limits, which are among the most stringent in the world for cell phones.”

We have 5G live in a test environment at the Spark 5G Lab in Wynyard Quarter in central Auckland. We’re working to have it live throughout Wynyard Quarter by mid-2020 so that Emirates Team New Zealand can test and innovate in their quest to defend the America’s Cup.

The timing of the 5G roll out to the rest of New Zealand depends on spectrum availability. We’ll work closely with the government to participate in whatever approach they decide is appropriate to free up and auction this spectrum. Spark is 5G ready and we want to bring it to New Zealand as soon as possible.

Many countries around the world are starting to roll out 5G technology, including Australia, US, UK, Scandinavian countries, France, Spain, Germany, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

Yes, Spark’s 5G Lab complies with all current internationally recognised guidelines, so we’re sure it’s safe. The radiation levels inside and outside the Lab have been independently tested. These tests show that the levels are a small percentage of the New Zealand National Environmental Standards (NES) limit.

There’s been some discussion globally that certain frequencies which are likely to be used for 5G, especially mmWave band, could potentially cause interference in water vapour measurements. These measurements provide an input to weather forecasts.

Spark intends its initial roll out to be in the 3.5Ghz band. This band is not adjacent to that of earth exploration satellites used to monitor water vapour content in the atmosphere. Yet, the 24GHz band is adjacent to the earth exploration satellite band. Spark will comply with co-existence requirements between 5G and adjacent bands as defined by the World Radio Conference 2019.

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