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TETRA: still a live issue


Is TETRA still a live issue?

At present, the Airwave project, after several sales to new owners, is expanding. Despite complaints at the end of 2008 that Airwave (now Airwave Solutions!) still hasn’t delivered to promises from 2004, the system is being rented to an expanding ranger of users. The beacon of police communications is now being used by car park attendants among others, but it is the fire and ambulance services that comprise the largest groups of new users.

In the years since TETRAWatch began asking questions many things have changed. The infrastructure in the UK is complete, its resilience is being caught up with by the addition of point-to-point microwave links between many base stations, and other technologies are doing what TETRA never could with data. The rapid rise of digital communications and ubiquitous wireless devices has been exciting, offering us not only the ability to use much more expensive equipment, but do far more, with all the convenience of no plugs or trailing wires. A very cheap mobile device could now do everything TETRA promised and more, though less robustly and with shorter battery life. But as a result, police officers (and soon all emergency services workers) now can carry several wireless devices for speech and data. The net effect is that occupational exposure to electromagnetic radiation is very much higher than it was a few years ago.


If someone bought you a radio with crystal clear reception in most places and no interference, with a number of useful additional operational features, you would be pleased. Apart from the glitches you’d expect from new technology, it would be a massive improvement. For voice, TETRA does a good (if expensive) job. And as a user of a cheap mobile phone with Internet access and email, you would expect it to. (But for £800 of tax payer’s money for each radio?)

So let’s agree: digital wireless communications can be amazing: they speed up all sorts of things, they entertain, and by converging in the way they work, integration into a single device for everything, is just about with us in the UK. Our prediction is that if we do end up with an ID database in the UK, there will be one slim wireless device that identifies us, grants or denies us access to public places, handles our money transactions, links to our medical records (and criminal, if we have them – and maybe even if we don’t but someone thinks we might) and keeps track of everything we do and everywhere we go, and everyone we transact with. Oh, and enables us to talk to each other. ‘All in our best possible interests ...’ of course.

The safety question

Everything centres on the magic of modern communications saving us from the terrible things that others might do to us – despite the fact that they also enable those who would do terrible things to do them better. But the fundamental question TETRAWatch has asked from the start is whether the electromagnetic environment it creates is safe. The old stories of people looking at masts and being frightened of invisible rays or whatever, so they become ill, is now too ridiculous to even reply to.

What the science in the intervening years has increasingly uncovered is that chronic exposure is a definite risk, and that the biological effects are not as straightforward as purely energetic damage (basically electromagnetic shaking of molecules in the body). Perhaps the engineering view of EM radiation is also a useful but only partial picture, and that transverse waves are not the only aspect of EM radiation capable of creating physical interactions. Everything (and that includes ourselves) is energy, mass is condensed energy, and the characteristics of everything are measured in frequency. So communicating by ‘shaking the fabric of reality’ may not be a very good idea. Some frequencies really do matter to living organisms (which are fundamentally electromagnetic too), and the picture is that the frequencies of patterns is what matters most. The analogy is that you tap you feet to the rhythm, not to the frequency of middle C. So it is probably not so much the 380MHz itself in TETRA as the rigid structural variation in the signal, that matters. Frequencies of patterns that are unvarying may lock cellular processes and limit their regulatory functions.

A changed situation

The Airwave base stations are up, and those who can’t live with them move away. We have detected a clear manifestation that we called ‘TETRA lines’, with corresponding adverse effects on people. Nothing predicts their existence. But it is operational users of TETRA for whom we fear the most. Since 2003 these users are a long way indeed from the definition of ‘regular user’ employed by the Interphone study on mobile phones and health. In that study, it has been apparent for some considerable time that the research co-ordinators do not know what to do with the results, since analysis of those studies that have published, indicate significant risk factors.

That definition of ‘regular use’ is miniscule compared with a police officer who wears a TETRA handset, carries one or two other mobile devices, drives a car with a roof antenna they stand next to regularly (and hopefully never, ever, uses a handset on its own inside a vehicle), all day every day – and then goes home to a wireless router and a DECT phone. And these days maybe plays with a Wii to ‘keep healthy’! Any predictions about handset signal-structure frequencies of 17.6Hz interfering with biological systems are now even more serious because of the additive effect of chronic exposure to other wireless devices. There are no protective guidelines in this regard, and yet we are placing the lives of all our emergency workers in this daily environment. That there is a risk, we are now certain. How big a risk, and how much is uniquely due to TETRA, is of course a function of personal lifestyles. But TETRA represents the greatest chronic exposure over time, with perhaps one of the most suspect pattern frequencies.

The importance of monitoring

Cancer is not the only potential outcome of chronic exposure, but it is the most recognisable. It would be wrong to focus wholly on it, but just for now, we must remember that the latency of 10 to 20 years means that observing too late could consign a very large number (if small percentage) of users to irretrievable and lefe-threatening health problems. Predictions that have been offered inevitably begin with small numbers, and one never starts checking statistics with small numbers. Nonetheless, observing early signs of chronic exposure (cancers in the proximity of habitual use or carrying) is very important. Similarly, any signs of the precursors, which include the symptoms of electrical hypersensitivity (ES) are important. We have an idea that the very factors that link all the symptoms of ES are the same as those that link multiple chemical sensitivity, and chronic fatigue syndrome, whose profiles are extremely similar. If these factors are as we think, then the immune system and cell integrity are indeed intimately involved, and create conditions for cancers and neurological disorders. So our advice is: it may seem that everything went quiet after the protests of 2003/04, but we had better not stop monitoring those at greatest risk, the TETRA users themselves.

Unfortunately, at a time when the investment and the success of the Airwave project means everything, voicing justifiable concerns is unwelcome. User contacting this site frequently do so anonymously. And the impression is that all is not as well as it could be among users, and that probably no-one is truly representing their interests. Technology enchants: literally ‘puts under a spell’, and amazing as our technology appears, we are not terribly ready to find that its side-effects can be real and bad.

 Barrie Trower: the predictions he made may be underestimated

 Earlier thoughts from 2006

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TETRA in mast sharing. Government choice and saves planning, but with what combination effect?

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