Residents left out in MTN deal with City Power

MTN has secured a tender from one of the City of Johannesburg’s municipal entities City Power to turn lampposts into cellular base stations. While the only people who seem aware of the initiative — techno-geeks — have welcomed the move as a solution to coverage problems the project poses a number of serious governance questions.

The first two towers were erected in Bryanston with more than 100 to follow before Christmas according to MTN in the northern suburbs of Bryanston Sandton Woodmead Northcliff Westcliff Kyalami and Fairland.

The problem is that residents were not consulted and there appears to be a rough-shod approach to environmental legislation and bylaws that is intended to protect affected parties in the controversial cellphone-mast safety debate.

The roll-out is potentially huge — MTN the only bidding party for the contract is entitled to replace any of 110000 lampposts throughout Johannesburg with mini-masts which will include a light. City Power wins — it secures a monthly rent for each site and street lighting is provided and guaranteed by MTN.

While MTN has argued the poles are hard to distinguish from ordinary lighting poles they are considerably larger and more unsightly than street lights with a box at the base.

MTN dismisses the health implications as being within World Health Organisation norms but the basis for this assurance is vague and appears not to have been independently verified.

Residents are left asking how such a roll-out could take place without communication or engagement? Who can reassure us of our safety (other than the people installing the masts)?

The entire process appears to have sidestepped local governance processes — two steps removed from council via a municipal entity via a concessionaire. The lack of consultation and rapid construction of the masts (in 11 hours) is the very sort of privatised service opponents have warned against for years.

While the land is not being sold off a private concessionaire appears to be able to operate in a way that would be unimaginable for a council structure — without the due process of engagement designed to ensure consensus.

Proponents of privatisation argue that the private sector can deliver efficiently retaining its profit motive with the public interest protected where regulators oversee matters such as health safety and the environment. With serious health questions and potential environmental consequences why has Johannesburg played no apparent role in the roll-out — and gone a step further exempting MTN from building-regulation bylaws?

Under normal circumstances cellphone masts require formal zoning an environmental impact assessment comments from adjacent owners (who are to be notified by registered mail) and ward committee engagement among other specifications for application. Why should the largest roll-out of cellphone masts even if termed "mini" be exempted? Those opposed to privatisation and public-private partnerships would argue such a clandestine and murky operation exemplifies the reasons such partnerships pose a danger to the public interest.

The legislation and structures that have been so carefully crafted and negotiated to protect the public interest at the local level are simply sidestepped in this ham-fisted attempt by City Power to make a quick buck through the self-serving commercial imperative to increase the coverage of a privately owned telecommunications company.

MTN glibly concludes the connectivity benefits of the mini-mast project outweigh the costs but is it appropriate for MTN to make this assessment given that it has everything to gain and nothing to lose? The cost of course will be borne by residents who have to live with new unsightly and potentially dangerous structures that were inflicted on them literally overnight affecting their aesthetics and potentially property prices not to mention long-term health concerns.

These are the very concerns that our local government should be protecting us from rather than imposing on us. With MTN planning to engage more municipalities with the mini-mast plan it is important that all South Africans not just Johannesburg residents should get a chance to engage in this debate before waking up to find their street lights transformed into cellphone masts.