Verizon, Alltel Merger Brings Questions About Worker Health

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WASHINGTON (Dow Jones) The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers wants the Federal Communications Commission to require Verizon Communications and Alltel to adopt a nationwide safety program protecting people from harmful radio frequencies as a condition of their proposed merger.

At issue is the health of electricians, plumbers, and other workers who might be working near hidden cell towers without knowing it.

One way to mitigate that problem, according to IBEW Safety and Health Director Jim Tomaseski, is to make available to other employers the locations of the cellphone towers.

"If you're close enough to them, you can be getting burned and not even know it. You don't feel it. You don't see it," said Tomaseski.

"The problem is that these things are everywhere now. There's over a half a million of these cellular sites...They may be on the roof of your building," Tomaseski said.

Verizon and Alltel train their workers on how to avoid exposure, but other employers might not be aware of the problem, Tomaseski said. "As a painter, my boss just tells me to go do it."

IBEW also wants a third party to monitor the new company's nationwide plan as a condition of the merger.

IBEW is one of several entities filing comments in opposition to the deal. The merger would make Verizon Wireless the largest wireless carrier in the country.

The EMR Policy Institute, a Vermont-based advocacy group, is bolstering IBEW's arguments about adverse health effects of radio frequencies. "Currently public health remains largely unprotected from the enormous amounts of electromagnetic radiation involved in this license transfer," EMR said in its comment to the FCC.

EMR has long argued that cell towers in close proximity to humans are dangerous. Calling FCC's guidelines on radio frequencies "superficial and arbitrary," EMR said the FCC should "initiate or request thorough and comprehensive research" on the towers' health effects.

Meanwhile, a group of competitor wireless companies is protesting the merger because it says the deal will harm its members roaming agreements with Alltel. These companies want the FCC to finish a rule on roaming rights before it signs off on the Verizon-Alltel deal.

One of the signatories to that comment is Leap Wireless International, which does business as Cricket. "Alltel is a large roaming partner of Cricket's," said Leap Government Affairs Director Laurie Itkin. "We're going to lose that with the merger."

Other signatories include the Rural Telecommunications Group, the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies, and several competitor companies.

Filing separately, Centennial Communications made a similar argument, saying the new company should be required to enter into roaming agreements with competitors both for voice and wireless Internet connections.

Verizon already has promised to give small, rural carriers the option of maintaining any roaming agreements they now have with Alltel after the merger.

Verizon also has said small companies that have roaming agreements with both Alltel and Verizon Wireless can opt for either agreement to govern all roaming traffic after the merger.

Consumer advocates also oppose the merger, arguing the deal is bad for competition.

Consumers Union Senior Counsel Christopher Murray said the merged company would make it more difficult for manufacturers to make mobile devices that can operate on different networks. "You add 13 million subscribers to Verizon's huge footprint...It makes it even harder for handset manufacturers to push back against exclusive terms," he said.

Several organizations have sent comments to the FCC supporting the pending merger, including Women Impacting Public Policy, which said women and minority business owners would benefit from increased access to wireless Internet.

The Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy echoed those comments, saying the merger would speed the roll-out of new wireless Internet technologies that allow for increased download speeds.

-By Fawn Johnson, Dow Jones Newswires; 202-862-9263; fawn.johnson@dowjones.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

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