Belgium says no to 5G mmWave down south

The government of Belgium’s Wallonia region has given the go-ahead for an increase in radiation limits for 5G, but is sticking to its guns on health concerns about millimetre wave.

The powers that be are not scaremongering on mmWave as such. It’s just that the science is lacking, they say. That is, there isn’t enough hard information on the impact of mmWave on health, therefore they have opted for what they term “the principle of precaution.”

The regional government hasn’t exactly thrown caution to the wind on radiation standards either.

It confirmed on Friday that, based on the recommendations of an expert panel, the limit on the emissions from radio masts using 900 MHz frequencies will be set at 9.2 volts per meter per operator, up a maximum of double that, or 18.4 V/m, if multiple operators are using the same site. With shared mast usage being pretty much a given for 5G in most places, that second figure is the important one here.

“This limit makes it possible to limit the real and cumulative exposure of citizens to the radio waves,” the government said, in a statement.

The new limit brings Wallonia broadly into line with the Flemish region, but still leaves Belgium with significantly stricter radiation rules than the rest of Europe.

“By way of comparison, this limit corresponds to one-twentieth of the limit recommended and applied in the vast majority of European countries,” the government said. “The level of environmental and health protection would therefore remain very high but would nevertheless allow the development of 5G.”

Belgium’s famously cautious approach to radiation emissions means the country still has little in the way of 5G services. Incumbent Proximus, for example, launched a light version of 5G as long as two years ago in a handful of municipalities in Wallonia, but caved to pressure from health-conscious citizens concerned about the emissions from its masts and pulled the plug in some. However, it won provisional rights to 3.6 GHz-3.8 GHz spectrum that summer and rolled out 5G in parts of Antwerp, Ghent and Haasrode in the Flanders half of the country before the end of the year. It is building its 5G presence, but the radiation issue has rumbled on throughout Belgium – in Flanders, Wallonia and the Brussels region – and its coverage map remains patchy.

Meanwhile, Telenet brought its first 5G service to market in December, again with tight limits on coverage and availability, while the country’s other big MNO, Orange, included Belgium when it announced its suppliers for 5G standalone, but until recently restricted its 5G service to business customers, although as of February made the service available to postpaid consumers.

The telcos will all participate in the country’s upcoming multi-band frequency auction, that is due to take place in June through which the regulator will reassign 2G and 3G licences as well as selling off 5G spectrum.

The Belgian Institute for Postal Services and Telecommunications (BIPT) in March revealed that it had approved five applicants for the auction and later shared that one of the potential newcomers had exercised an option to acquire a package of reserved spectrum that could be used for 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G services at a cost of €83.3 million.

All of which suggests that the radiation issue – which is ongoing, despite the latest developments in Wallonia – is not that off-putting to would-be Belgian 5G providers.

As well as setting an emission standard, the Wallonia government has undertaken a series of commitments related to 5G safety. These include continuous monitoring of the exposure levels of the general public and a 10-year study designed to examine the effects of mobile masts on people and the environment. It also opens up the possibility for the individual communes in Wallonia’s five provinces to request controls on exposure to radio waves.

Further, the government said it is setting up a task force with the country’s mobile operators to achieve concrete commitments in a number of areas that seem only loosely linked to the radiation issue, including rural infrastructure investments, limits on energy usage, and infrastructure pooling.

There’s a lot of bureaucracy around 5G in Belgium, but this move by the Wallonia government is a step in the right direction. The real action though will come following the June spectrum auction. We can expect to see the operators start to ramp up rollouts after that.

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