Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Is Wi-Fi bad for your health?

Patrick Goss: Editor - Tech & Gadgets
Is Wi-Fi bad for your health

The argument about Wi-Fi causing health problems is rumbling on, with the news that part of London has been fitted with a new network re-igniting discussions about the prudence of installation whilst long-term repercussions have yet to be ascertained.

There has been no firm scientific proof that Wi-Fi is detrimental to health, although many people claim to have an unusually high sensitivity to the technology – which uses microwaves to link devices such as consoles, laptops, phones and computers into a network.

Wi-Fi networks are proliferating across the UK, with many coffee shops, universities and homes now able to take advantage of a technology that allows connectivity without a cumbersome wire trailing from the device to a phone or broadband socket.

The fears about the technology are similar to those being expressed about mobile phones – although in radiation terms the amount received from a wireless network is a significant amount less than from a single mobile – simply because they are designed to operate over much smaller areas.

The Independent on Sunday suggest that 1.6 million Wi-Fi units have been sold in the past 18 months, with Internet Service Providers such as BT, Sky and AOL all including wireless in their options.

The increased numbers of wireless devices mean that people are becoming less and less tolerant of being without a connection and cities such as Norwich and now part of London now have major coverage networks.

What seems to concern many people is the lack of a major study into the effects of the Wi-Fi networks.

The Professional Association of Teachers has written to Education secretary Alan Johnston to ask for an enquiry to be mounted, as a growing number of pressure groups lobby for action.

The Health Protection Agency issued a report insisting that long-term research is necessary, although their findings are more specifically about mobile phones rather than Wi-Fi.

"We believe that the level of publicly-funded research into the effects of microwave emissions falls short of an adequate programme into an area where public health implications should be regularly reviewed," read the report.

"We recommend that the Government ensures a higher priority is given to a research programme into the health impacts of mobile phones. The public health aspects of new technologies should be incorporated into the Foresight Programme."

In the meantime, the installation of wireless networks shows no sign of abating – but it seems likely that the government will be prepared to bend to the pressure a launch a full scale health probe into the perceived long term dangers of the technology.

What is Wi-Fi?

• Wi-Fi stands for Wireless Fidelity and is, at essence, a set of standards for transmitting data from computers etc over a network without wires.

• This transmission is fast enough to allow transfer at a broadband-like rate

• If you are within a certain distance of a WI-Fi transmitter and have the necessary receiver in the device you wish to access it with, then it should be possible. This zone of connectivity is known as a hotspot.

• Many laptops and several phones and portable media players now come with built in Wi-Fi connectivity – as well as next generation consoles like the PlayStation 3

• Home computers and laptops can often be upgraded fairly cheaply to be linked into a Wi-Fi network with a plug in card or gadget.

• Wimax is a next generation version of Wi-Fi. It can integrate into current Wi-Fi technologies but has a much broader range and can send larger amounts of data per second.

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