Mini-Cell Towers: Good for Reception, Bad for Health


AT&T is about to do something extreme: provide a functioning phone network to their customers. Unfortunately, there’s a downside.

Many AT&T customers have complained about weak signals on their phones, and even AT&T (Stock Quote: T) has admitted that some of their networks get overtaxed. In one peculiar move, AT&T actually tried to prevent New Yorkers from buying more iPhones in order to help the network run smoother.

Now, AT&T has another bright idea: mini-cell towers. This month, the carrier will begin selling what they call “MicroCells” for $150.  According to the New York Times, these towers are relatively small, about as big as “a couple decks of cards,” and they work by “redirecting cell phone calls from congested cell towers to home Web connections.” The Times notes that several other phone companies including Verizon (Stock Quote: VZ) and Samsung already sell these towers, but usually for “niche use to customers in places with limited cell phone signals, like basements or homes with particularly thick walls.”

While these towers will likely improve your phone reception and hopefully limit the number of calls that get dropped, there are two potentially serious problems with this plan. First, the towers are bad for your wallet. In addition to the $150 price tag, the Times reports “AT&T customers would be charged for the minutes of phone service in their existing wireless plans unless they pay an extra $20 a month for unlimited calling.”

Perhaps more importantly, the towers may also be bad for your health. We interviewed several experts who believe consumers should think twice before purchasing these cell towers. “It is not a smart idea,” said Dr. Lennart Hardell, who authored a pivotal study on the link between long-term cell phone use and brain tumors. “It will increase radiofrequency emissions in the home and we do not know the long term effects of that.”

The FCC describes radiofrequency emissions as “the movement of electric charges” coming from the antennae of mobile devices. As with radiation in general, some studies have shown that radiofrequency emissions can be harmful at high levels. Hardell cautions that these emission could be particularly harmful to children, causing various “cognitive effects” including sleep disturbance, headaches and potentially even cancer.

Devra Lee Davis, a professor at Mount Sinai Medical Center and author of The Secret History of the War on Cancer, argues it may be okay to install these towers in the home since they tend to have a low “electric field intensity.” However, she cautions families to be careful how they use these devices. “While these mini-towers pose no immediate threat to health, the long term impacts of their use, especially for the young and those with 24/7 exposures is a matter of concern,” she said. “I would advise turning these things off, when their use is not needed, such as at night. And never place them close to children, pregnant women or men trying to become fathers.”

Of course, if you are one of the many disenchanted AT&T customers who own an iPhone and are hesitant about buying one of these towers, there may be another out for you. Rumor has it that Apple is developing a version of the iPhone specially designed for use on Verizon’s wireless network, and the CEO of Verizon recently admitted to being in talks with Apple.

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