Malaysiakini Letter

Wi-Fi - Penang gov't doing the right thing

Citizen of Penang  |  Published:  |  Modified:

I refer to the letter Transform Penang but not at public health expense .

I wish to respond to the points raised by CAP in the above mentioned letter.

1. CAP claims that the Wi-Fi is currently a world public health and safety issue and that the Penang government’s stand on the matter goes against current trends of international concern on wireless technology.

Does CAP know that major cities in the world are the biggest adopters of Wi-Fi, and in fact are competing to be the world's largest Wi-Fi or Wi-Max hotspot cities? Cities like London, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Seoul, Tokyo, Taipei, Singapore and Paris are in fact working on large scale implementation of Wi-Fi/Wi-Max so the this trend appears to be opposite of what CAP claims.

2. CAP is concerned that the state government has decided to ignore public objections and that the state government is being undemocratic and unfair.

What public objections? Has CAP done any survey to show that a large number or majority of Penangnites are against this? Or is this just a projection of its personal view? CAP said that the Penang public opposes the implementation of free Wi-Fi initiative in Penang, but to date, I have not found anyone I know who is against the idea of free Wi-Fi.

I have, in fact, had some private discussions with friends and family members, and I have yet to hear of anyone objecting to it. However, to be fair, most of the people I talked to are young to middle-aged, middle-class, educated professionals living on Penang island, so my sample is probably skewed.

Nonetheless, this is probably the population most exposed to any threat from wireless technologies as well as the group representing a large percentage of the Penang population.

3. ‘Wi-Fi, like mobile phones, is an untested technology. Wi-Fi operates in a way very similar to mobile phones – which itself, is not a safe technology. At a September 2008 testimony before a subcommittee of the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform, scientists warned that the potential link between mobile phones and brain cancer could be similar to the link between lung cancer and smoking – something tobacco companies took 50 years to recognise.’

This is a testimony targeting mobile phones which we all know has a significantly higher radiation level than Wi-Fi, so why make Wi-Fi the scapegoat when the main issue raised is on mobile phones? In any case, for all practical purposes, hasn't the mobile phone been around for at least 20 years?

Mind you, if all the world's scientists and experts still can't find any conclusive evidence of health threats due to mobile phones, what makes you think that the Penang government with its limited resources and funds will be able to conduct a proper research on Wi-Fi as proposed by CAP? It is unrealistic!

Okay, for the sake of argument, let's just say that the Penang government decides to do their own study, so how long is this going to take before we reach a conclusion? Another 30 years? Will anyone trust the outcome?

In the meantime, the fact remains that Wi-Fi and Wi-Max adoption will grow exponentially throughout Penang, Malaysia and the whole world, so like it or not, we will still be exposed to the wireless radiation eventually. However, the difference is instead of getting Wi-Fi for free, the public has to pay the service providers for it.

4. ‘Present official stands in other countries on the same issue: Many advanced countries have adopted a precautionary approach to the use of wireless technology. The Swiss government issued a health alert on electrosmog in 2005. Germany, Austria and Belgium have all advised schools against installing Wi-Fi networks. In France, five public libraries shut down their Wi-Fi over health concerns. Last year, the German government warned its citizens to avoid using Wi-Fi. Wi-fi could be just as unsafe as mobile phones (both emit microwave radiation) but proof could be a long time in coming.’

As I stated above, other major cities like London, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Seoul, Tokyo, Taipei, Singapore and Paris are, in fact, working on large scale implementation of Wi-Fi/Wi-Max.

Frankly, this does not surprise me because there are people who insist on staying behind the sidelines until they are absolutely sure it’s safe to step out. But how long are these people willing to wait? Another 20 years? The fact remains there is still no real conclusive evidence of this threat even after 20 or more years of large scale adoption of mobile phones.

And oh, by the way, to put things in perspective, a study shows that a year of sitting in a classroom near a wireless network is roughly equivalent to 20 minutes on a mobile. If Wi-Fi is a concern, then the mobile phone network should be the first to shut down, and then FM radio and TV, as the strength of their signals is similar to that from Wi-Fi in classrooms. Think about this!

5. ‘The Penang government’s decision to go ahead with the project may thus jeopardise public health. Such a stand also ignores people’s rights to basic health and a safe living environment. It is obvious from the above that Wi-Fi poses ‘threats of serious or irreversible damage’, a condition which, under the Precautionary Principle that several countries now adopt, is a valid basis for the Penang government to abandon the project, or at the very least, review it.’

Again, I don't understand why CAP keeps saying Wi-Fi poses ‘threats or serious or irreversible damage’ when no one has proven that the mobile phone poses a real threat. Personally, while the Precautionary Principle can be a good concept, an overzealous attempt to adopt this principle can cripple the country's progress.

I think the Penang government can better prioritise their resources and time to address more important issues such as better road traffic systems, safer and more reliable public transportation, putting in systems for reduction of crime, food safety, elimination of monopolistic businesses in Malaysia, etc, all areas where there is real solid evidence to show that we're going downhill.

In summary, while I can appreciate CAP adopting a cautious stand, I, however, disagree with CAP on this issue. I do believe a large majority of the people of Penang approve this free Wi-Fi initiative. In life, we have to take some risks to progress and improve. Life passes us by as we wait, and in this day and age of globalisation, waiting is not a luxury we have.

It is my opinion that the Penang government is doing the right thing here and is in fact helping to lessen the people's financial burden if Wi-Fi is free. The only ones who will lose are the monopolies like Telekom, Astro and others.

CAP should instead focus on helping eradicate poor service deliveries, food safety issues and help people obtain justice after getting ripped off by unscrupulous companies.

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