5G mobile technology

Who decides where cell towers can be placed?

Throughout Germany, new sites for radio installations such as mobile phone masts are springing up, while existing sites are being upgraded. The aim is for the entire population to be able to benefit from fast 5G mobile communications. But before the start-up, there’s an extensive site certification procedure. Here’s how it works.

New network, new technology: For the development of the 5G mobile networks, new sites for radio installations are springing up and new antennas are being added to existing sites. But before the technicians can be called out, calculations and checks need to be carried out. Germany has had a standardised nationwide site certification procedure since 1992. This ensures compliance with the permitted thresholds for electromagnetic fields, thereby making sure the population is protected. The site certification procedure carried out in Germany is unmatched in terms of systematic implementation. And because mobile communications are constantly evolving – first GSM, then UMTS, then LTE and now 5G – the procedure is also being developed constantly. 

Stationary installations with transmitting and receiving antennas, also known as “stationary radio installations”, are used for supplying a specific area. It is primarily the network operators who determine where an installation should be located because they are the ones responsible for the planning and development of the mobile networks. Their network planning is geared towards supplying consumers optimally and avoiding any network disruption. 

Network operators cannot just start up installations at will 

A mobile radio cell is generated by a base station. The optimum location for such a base station is determined by operators, not simply at random, but via computerised procedures. This procedure factors in the topographical conditions, the degree to which the area is built up and the level of vegetation, along with a prognosis as to the potential volume of phone calls and data traffic. 

Once a suitable site has been found, the Federal Network Agency becomes involved, monitoring compliance with the regulations governing the telecommunications sector and conducting the site certification procedure. This takes place before the start-up and concludes with the issuing of a site certificate, provided the thresholds established for the protection of persons are being adhered to. If not, the Federal Network Agency declines to issue the certificate and the proposed radio installation may not come on stream. Around 16,000 of these certificates are issued every year. Once an application has been completed and all questions have been dealt with, it is processed within three to four weeks. 

Experts determine the safety distance 

How does the Federal Network Agency determine the mandatory safety distances? There are two possible methods: 

  • Mathematical: here, each transmitting antenna is considered individually with reference to its technical parameters. The Federal Network Agency assumes the proposed maximum possible utilisation of the installation. For each of the parameters to be evaluated, an assumption is made to the disadvantage of the installation operator – in the context of protecting the population, experts speak of the worst-case scenario. In making their evaluation, they draw on the provisions of the Ordinance on Electromagnetic Fields. 
  • Metrological: if, for example, some or all calculation parameters are missing, on-site measurements are taken by the Federal Network Agency. 

The safety distances defined in the site certificate take into account: 

  1. 1the field intensity, that is to say the emissions, of the radio installation that is the subject of the application, 

2. the field intensity of the other radio installations that are not the subject of the application but are also mounted on the radio installation site to be assessed, 

3. the relevant field intensity of surrounding radio installations at other sites that already have a site certificate. 

At the end of the process, two safety distances will have been determined: 

  • a site-related safety distance that takes into account all transmitting antennas mounted at the site, whether one or more radio installations are involved, 
  • and a safety distance for each individual transmitting antenna, whether one or more radio installations are involved. 

Both protection and transparency are therefore assured. 

A site certificate does not remain valid forever 

A site certificate, once issued, is not a permanent certification. The moment a provider changes certain technical specifications, the certificate must be applied for again. Technical specifications relevant to the determination of safety distances are the mounting height, the main radiation direction, the number of channels, the power and the so-called antenna gain – the value that combines directionality with efficiency. The operator may only put such alterations into operation once the Federal Network Agency has issued the new certificate. 

A site cannot always be used by several radio installations. Shared use is only be possible if the applicable thresholds can be adhered to and the new installations do not disturb the existing ones. Another factor militating against the upgrading of existing transmission masts is, quite simply, statics: masts or buildings cannot bear just any number of installations. For these reasons, additional radio installations for 5G cannot simply be attached at will to every transmission mast. In such cases, new sites must be found. 

Checking by the Federal Network Agency 

At irregular intervals, and without letting the operators know, the Federal Network Agency checks whether the provisions of the site certificate are being adhered to. The actual number of such checks is governed by the number of site certificates issued in one year. Per year, around 15 per cent of the issued site certificates are checked. In concrete terms, that’s over 2,000 site checks. 

Incidentally, all citizens are entitled to find out about cell towers in their surrounding area. The Federal Network Agency provides a map of Germany showing all radio installation sites with a site certificate here.

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