How Safe is Wifi for Internet Based Learning in New Zealand Schools - A Balanced Approach

Ricardo Fox - 2014


Internet based learning is an important part of the 21st century New Zealand classroom and school. To effectively implement Internet based learning schools are introducing many devices rather than a few so that knowledge can be imparted and shared by all rather than a few. In order to effectively use our school networks schools are choosing Wi-Fi to connect these devices. Currently many schools, including my own, are under pressure to remove Wi-Fi technology from schools as some parents and community members believe that it is not safe. This action has, and will limit the student’s Internet based learning as many schools are using hand held mobile devices due to cost, connectedness and ease. My school has rolled out one to one Apple iPads for the entire 150-person learning community of teachers, teacher aides, management, board and students. It is an increasing problem for New Zealand School principals with the question being asked “How physically safe is Wi-Fi for students to use to connect to the Internet?”


There have been significant issues in North Island Schools including those that I have been principal of. The most recent to capture national attention and media interest was that of Te Horo School in the Horowhenua-Kapati Provence.
In 2012, Te Horo School student, 10-year-old Ethan Wyman passed away from a brain tumor. It was reported, by his parents, that he slept with an iPod underneath his pillow at night. According to his parents he was just like his brothers and sisters and the only difference was that he slept with the iPod. Like many devices schools use, this iPod was Wi-Fi enabled (TVNZ News, 2013). Ethan’s father Damon followed on from his son’s death and petitioned Ethan’s School, Te Horo School, to remove Wi-Fi from the school and have the school’s Internet connection move back to being delivered via wired, Ethernet cables (One News, 2013). The Board of Trustees moved to remove Wi-Fi from all junior classes and limit the use of it in their senior classes, therefore limiting the students access to Internet based resources for their learning (Moir, 2013). It is important to acknowledge that the board of trustees made this decision even after both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health both acknowledged that Wi-Fi was safe to be used in schools (Moir, 2013).
National Administrative Guidelines (NAG) binds educational Governors and Managers in New Zealand. NAG five states that a board of trustees must “provide a safe physical and emotional environment for students” (MOE, 2014). It is understandable in this context why Te Horo School decided to remove Wi-Fi without an impartial, informed and detailed report on the research with regards to how physically safe Wi-Fi is for students to use to connect to the Internet by the Ministry of Education. There also seems to be no discussion with teachers and students about the positive impact of Internet based learning. Here lies the issue for Managers and Governors of New Zealand Schools to make an informed decision. Unfortunately through researching for this piece of literature much of the text and reviews on the safety of Wi-Fi is heavily biased either for the use of Wi-Fi or against the use of Wi-Fi. This piece of literature will move to find an impartial, informed, balanced and rational answer to “How physically safe is Wi-Fi for students to use to connect to the Internet?”


To understand Wi-Fi we need to understand what it is and its origins. The birth of Wi-Fi has its roots in 1985 when the American telecommunications regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, allowed bands of wireless to be used without government permission (The Economist, 2004). The original bands were already in use by Radio Frequency (RF) devices and used for new devices of the time like microwave ovens. At the time the decision was not ground breaking but in hindsight was a significant decision to be made for the history of Internet (The Economist, 2004). In 1988 a wireless committee was formed called 802.11 that was based on the Ethernet Committee, 802.3, who had defined the use and protocols of tethered Internet use (Britannica, 2014). The job for this committee was to work together to find the best use of the wireless technology. Over the next ten years wireless technology moved little. This was because of the disjointed market and slow uptake of wireless technology. In 1997 the committee had to reconsider their original plan and through critical analysis and review drew up a new solution to improve the uptake in the market and the efficiency of the wireless technology. The standardisation was a success and in 1999 branding consultants came up with a number of names such as Flankspeed and DragonAir. In the end it was named Wi-Fi (The Economist, 2004).
With everything now designed to work perfectly Apple, as an innovative company, adopted the technology and marketed the Wi-Fi under AirPort. “Other computer-makers quickly followed suit. Wi-Fi caught on with consumers just as corporate technology spending dried up in 2001” (The Economist, 2004).


“Wi-Fi is defined as a wireless networking etiquette that allows devices to exchange data or connect to the Internet without cords or cables. It is the most popular means of communicating data wirelessly, within a fixed location, today” (Pinola, 2014). Today Wi-Fi uses a common standard 802.11 and 802.11n as defined by the 802.11 committee (Britannica, 2014).


The impact of wireless around the world is significant and has a significant impact of Internet based learning in New Zealand Schools. In 2012 the New Zealand Ministry of Education (MOE) introduced the Network for Learning (NfL) initiative to connect all schools to the Internet through Ultra Fast Broadband (UFB) (Network for Learning, 2014). Another initiative has been the upgrade of school Internet networks where WI-FI has been available to schools since 1 June 2013 (Ministry of Education, 2014). While Ethernet infrastructure, as a back up, is still good practice, many schools in the country have decided to introduce or upgrade their Wi-Fi infrastructure. Wi-Fi is fast becoming the post popular and effective means of connecting to the Internet nationally and globally. “By 2016, Strategy Analytics predicts, about 800 million households worldwide will have Wi-Fi access at home. That’s a global penetration of about 42%” (Lardinois, 2012). In New Zealand 80% of homes had some form of Internet connection and Broadband access was the connection of choice for nearly 90 percent of Internet users. Out of this 90 percent an impressive 83 percent of people with broadband at home said they accessed the Internet through a wireless router. Another astonishing fact is that 40 percent of these households have more than 1 device (Statistics NZ, 2012). Wi-Fi has become popular by the growing popularity of broadband connection because it is the simplest way to enable many devices to share a broadband link (The Economist, 2004). This is why is Wi-Fi is so popular in New Zealand schools as a class of 30 children can share one broadband link to complete internet based learning rather than 5 students each hovering around one of six desk top computers schools traditionally had in each class. Statistics New Zealand (2012) noted that in New Zealand “our personal use of mobile Internet (cellular, datacards, hotspots, and Wi-Fi) has doubled in the last three years, indicating that half of those who use the Internet are mobile when doing so.“ It is fair to acknowledge that the Wi-Fi revolution is not going to disappear in a hurry, nor is it going to be removed from New Zealand Schools. 


Parents and community members who are against Wi-Fi in schools are not against technology, as in the case of Damon Wyman. Many of the parent and community groups that have been formed fully support the use of technology, computers and the Internet for education in schools. Unfortunately this technology is through wired Ethernet cabling which limits the use of Internet based resources using wireless devices. These parents and community members believe that there is nothing lost by banning or limiting Wi-Fi in schools. What these parents and community members fail to understand is that “Wi-Fi restrictions reduce and, in some cases, eliminate access for our children to the largest educational resource ever created – the Internet. It imposes limits on the types of tools our teachers can use, and negatively impacts the education of our children” (Lalonde, 2013). Parents in New Zealand’s main concerns are outlined in-depth by Wi-Fi in Australian Schools (2014):

  • Parents, students and teachers have not been informed about the potential health risks from EMR

  • There are NO scientific studies on Wi-Fi which look into long-term biological effects on children or adults

  • Parents, students and teachers have not been consulted about wireless installation in schools

  • There have been no risk assessments conducted by schools, the government or standard setting agencies on the long-term biological effects of Wi-Fi use in schools

  • There is no management plan to reduce RF EMR exposure in schools

  • There is no training for teachers and staff or awareness about how to be able to recognise any adverse symptoms in children from exposure to electromagnetic radiation

  • Despite the known risks wireless technologies are installed without any radiation emissions checks in each specific site where they are installed in the school 

  • Ambient RF EMR is the only environmental pollutant that is not subject to any regulation

  • Students, parents and staff have not been given a freedom of choice should they not want to be exposed to wireless radiation in schools

  • All children have the right to a safe learning environment

  • There is no management plan to reduce EMR exposure in schools


If the emotive and repeated argument points are removed and the factual issues remain there are two remaining points of contention:

  • Parents, students and teachers have not been informed about the potential health risks from RF EMR

  • There are NO scientific studies on Wi-Fi which look into long-term biological effects on children or adults


From here we can look at the definitions of some of the technological jargon and the research as to how physically safe is Wi-Fi for students to use to connect to the Internet in relation to the concern of parents.
EMR means Electromagnetic Radiation. It is the more aggressive notion of EMF - Electromagnetic Fields. The World Heath Organisation (2014) defines EMF as “Electric fields that are created by differences in voltage: the higher the voltage, the stronger will be the resultant field. Magnetic fields are created when electric current flows: the greater the current, the stronger the magnetic field. An electric field will exist even when there is no current flowing. If current does flow, the strength of the magnetic field will vary with power consumption but the electric field strength will be constant. A simple analogy should help to illustrate the concept: Tie a long rope to a door handle and keep hold of the free end. Moving it up and then down slowly will generate a single big wave; more rapid motion will generate a whole series of small waves. The length of the rope remains constant, therefore, the more waves you generate (higher frequency) the smaller will be the distance between them (shorter wavelength).” 


Nearly all the research related to Wi-Fi refers to levels of EMF in environments. Wi-Fi in Australian Schools (2014) refers to many different researchers and their work. Many of these excellent researchers have validated work. The most compelling articles that were researched for this literature were:

  • Australian Democrats. (2007) Joining the Dots.

  • Bioinitiative (2012) A Rationale for Biologically-based Public Exposure Standards for Electromagnetic Fields (ELF and RF)

  • Branett, S. (1994) CSIRO Report.

  • European Parliament. (2009) EU Parliament Electromagnetic Report and Resolution. 

  • Irish Doctors’ Environmental Association. (2005) IDEA Position on Electro-Magnetic Radiation.

  • Russian National Committee of Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection. (2008) RNCNIRP Report.

  • The International Electromagnetic Fields Alliance – IEMFA. (2011) Seletun Statement.

  • The Parliamentary Assembly Council of Europe Resolution. (2011) The potential dangers of electromagnetic fields and their effect on the environment.


A significant concern from much of this literature, read from a neutral position, was that the connection to Wi-Fi was made to look significantly worse as the wireless technology was linked directly to RF EMF’s using mobile phones and devices with frequencies emitted from cellular towers. While the research is true and backed up it promotes a false representation of the RF EMF frequencies emitted from a wireless router to a hand held device in the classroom. It is important to note that the hand held devices used in the typical New Zealand classroom do not have cellular capable abilities. Howard (2011) best explains the difference between the exposure of mobile phones and users of wireless devices. While Wireless routers emits slightly lower EMF’s, the routers are “located significantly farther away from users heads than a mobile phone, resulting in far less exposure overall. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) claims that if a person spends one year in a Wi-Fi hotspot, they will receive the same dose of radio waves as if they had made a 20-minute call on a mobile phone.” A parent could say that no EMF’s are better than any EMF’s. At this stage it is important to isolate Wi-Fi from mobile phones and research EMF’s solely from Wi-Fi emitters to hand held devices.


In 1999 New Zealand introduced radiofrequency (RF) field exposure Standards - the Maximum exposure levels were set at 3 kHz to 300 GHz. “The limits were based on Guidelines published in 1998 by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), and reaffirmed by ICNIRP in 2009 following a further review of the relevant research” (EMF Services 2014). After the incident at Te Horo School Martin Gledhill, New Zealand’s Ministry of Health’s radiation and RF EMF expert, was sent to the School to assess the levels of radiation in the classrooms with Wi-Fi on and off after the board had decided to switch it off in the junior classrooms. Gledhill concluded that while there was variance in home and commercial Wi-Fi EMF’s results were inconclusive. He acknowledged that EMF’s depend greatly on the placement and the distance devices are used. Gledhill went on to state that even considering the previous information and data given to him radiation emissions in the classroom were, at the most, still 250 times less than the maximum New Zealand safety limits allowed. Gledhill went further to outline that Wi-Fi bases and the devices used in the classroom communicate in pulses and over time produced even lower levels of EMF’s (Wannan, 2014).
Gledhill’s Comments on EMF’s in Wannan (2014) are reinforced in Peters (2014) by the United Kingdom Government’s Public Health England “There is no consistent evidence to date that exposure to radio signals from Wi-Fi and WLANs adversely affects the health of the general population. The signals are very low power, typically 0.1 watt (100 milliwatts) in both the computer and the router (access point), and the results so far show exposures are well within the internationally accepted guidelines from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). Based on current knowledge and experience, radio frequency (RF) exposures from Wi-Fi are likely to be lower than those from mobile phones. Also, the frequencies used in Wi-Fi are broadly the same as those from other RF applications such as FM radio, TV and mobile phones.”


Dimbylow and Findlay (2010) produced research on the effects of specific absorption rates on the human body my EMF’s (SAR) on 10-year-old children using common hand held devices. The results showed that all SAR values calculated were considerably lower than basic restrictions.


The Ministry of Education is very clear on its stance with regards to Wi-Fi – albeit a very straight forward and minimal in supporting documentation. The Ministry of Education takes advice from the Ministry of Health on all health matters that are related to New Zealand Schools. “The Ministry of Health recently affirmed its position that exposure to radioactive fields from Wi-Fi equipment in schools does not pose a health risk to staff or students in the area where it is used.
Measurements in New Zealand and overseas show that exposures to radio frequency fields from Wi-Fi equipment are extremely low, amounting to tiny fractions of the limit allowed for the public in the New Zealand radio frequency field exposure standard” (MOE, 2013).


The current research for parent’s first point of contention about the safety of Wi-Fi EMF’s in the classroom is incorrect, albeit with some important safety points about placement. The current levels of Wi-Fi RF EMF’s in the classrooms using handheld devices are safe. Therefore it is currently physically safe for teachers and students to use Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet to use Internet based resources.


The difficulty with this outcome lies with the second question parents have about the long term data and surveys around the safety of RF EMF’s from Wi-Fi over time. We are currently 15 years into the wireless journey and, in New Zealand; schools are only now rolling out UFB (N4L, 2014). The reality is that we have another 15 - 25 years to identify if there are any long-term risks. Internationally a number of experts have warned for precaution of the use of Wi-Fi in schools. The Australian Radiation Protection Nuclear Safety Agency who regulates radiation standards in Australia stated in there wireless fact sheet (2013) that “the technology is very new and it’s impossible to be completely sure there isn’t some risk. This is particularly true for children where there is little research evidence.” There was no information from literature researched at this present time that could specifically pinpoint if there were any long-term adverse affects of having Wi-Fi in the classroom. The Ministry of Education identifies this and states that “health and safety of children in our schools is critical and the Ministry will continue to monitor New Zealand standards, international standards and credible research on Wi-Fi and radio frequency electromagnetic fields as it becomes available” (MOE, 2013).


Public Health England (2013) have the best advice for schools internationally “On the basis of the published studies and those carried out in-house, PHE sees no reason why Wi-Fi should not continue to be used in schools and in other places. However with any new technology a sensible precautionary approach, as happened with mobile phones, is to keep the situation under review so that parents and others can have as much reassurance as possible.” Therefore the most important role of Governors and Managers is to ensure precaution is taken and that NAG 5 is adhered to. By mitigating risk schools are therefore meeting the needs of students, parents and communities with regard to long-term affects of Wi-Fi, if any. 


Wi-Fi in schools needs to be used intelligently. The most important fact of all advice from literature is to take specific precautions. Below are simplified and important precautions that schools can incorporate so that Wi-Fi is physically safe for students to use to connect to the Internet.

  • Evaluate what devices are connected using Wi-Fi. Any desktops or laptops that are in a fixed position can be connected using network cables, Ethernet. 

  • When installing a transmitting unit make sure that it is placed high so that RF EMF’s do not make contact with the human body.

  • Turn off the wireless on your devices when you are not using it. Some laptops have a button on the keyboard, others via the software (Windows = network settings, Mac = Airport/Airplane mode)

  • Avoid placing a Wi-Fi laptop computer or tablet on your lap. Use a desk, table or tablet holder.

  • Turn off the system and all devices when you are not using them.

  • Don't sleep with your wireless devices turned on (or underneath a pillow on camp)

  • Only turn the system on when you're using it.

  • Choose software on a laptop or an application on a tablet rather than cloud-computing technology.


As stated earlier Wi-Fi is not going to be disappearing overnight from homes or schools. Technology is moving so fast that by the time long-term research into the safety of Wi-Fi in Schools is completed we would have moved onto something completely new. The technological reality is that Wi-Fi may be providing us with a glimpse of what will be possible with future wireless technologies (The Economist, 2004). Already there is a movement to WiMax that has been Inspired by Wi-Fi's success. WiMax is long range Wi-Fi Technology “that major mobile device manufacturers have now thrown their weight behind. It is a common standard with a consumer-friendly name, which they hope will expand the market and boost all their fortunes. Whatever happens to Wi-Fi in future, it has blazed a trail for other technologies to follow” (The Economist, 2004).


How physically safe is Wi-Fi for students to use to connect to the Internet? It is safe. The research has been taken into account and it all points to and reassures the safe use of Wi-Fi in New Zealand classrooms and schools. This being said many experts have suggested that governors and managers of schools take precautionary measures to limit students to mitigate any prolonged exposure to RF EMF’s from WI-Fi signals. The most important piece of evidence uncovered was a letter written in 2011 from Dr Fran McGrath, Acting Director of Public Health of the Ministry of Health, to Kris Neilson, ICT Advisor to the Ministry of Education. This letter was written when concern of Wi-Fi use in schools was beginning to be surface in the media. This letter unequivocally states, “the installation of Wi-Fi equipment in schools does not pose a health risk to staff or students” (F. McGrath, personal communication, September 20, 2011)
In identifying that Wi-Fi is safe to be used in New Zealand Classrooms with precautions, therefore enabling students to use Internet based resources, radiation and student welfare carry a significant amount of emotion from parents. Unfortunately this is a subject where both sides of the argument feel passionately about their point of view and for every argument there is a counter argument. This has created a cycle of misinformation and stereotypes about Wi-Fi. What has been discovered is that many of the pieces of great literature and reviews by experts are being cherry picked by both sides and not reported in the full context to unsuspecting parents, teachers, communities, principals, students and board of trustees. 
The safety of Wi-Fi will continue to be debated into the future. Currently all research points to it being safe to use in our classrooms. Therefore Internet based learning should be continued using Wi-Fi in New Zealand schools for the foreseeable future.


References
Australian Government: Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency. (2013). How to reduce exposure from mobile phones and other wireless devices. Retrieved from http://www.arpansa.gov.au/pubs/factsheets/014is_wireless_exposure.pdf

Dads want Wi-Fi removed from schools [Video file]. (2013, December 13). Retrieved from http://tvnz.co.nz/technology-news/dads-want-wi-fi-removed-classrooms-video-5782066

EMF Services. (2014) The NZ RF field exposure StandardRetrieved from http://www.emfservices.co.nz/resources/the-nz-rf-field-exposure-standard

Encyclopedia Britannica. (2014). Wi-Fi. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1473553/Wi-Fi

Findlay, R and Dimbylow, P. (2010). SAR in a child voxel phantom from exposure to wireless computer networks (Wi-Fi). 2010 Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine. Phys. Med. Biol. 55 N405. 
Griffen, P. (2013, December 9). Demonising Wi-Fi [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://sciblogs.co.nz/griffins-gadgets/2013/12/19/demonizing-wifi-is-dangerous-to-your-childs-health/

Howard, J. (2011, October 25). Wireless electronic devices and health [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/jmhoward86/wireless-electronic-devices-and-health 

Lalonde, C. (2013)Wi-Fi in Schools Retrieved fromhttp://wifiinschools.ca 

Lardinois, F. (2012) Study: 61% of U.S. Households Now Have Wi-Fi. Retrieved fromhttp://techcrunch.com/author/frederic-lardinois/

Ministry of Education. (2014). MOE Wireless information. Retrieved from http://www.minedu.govt.nz/Parents/AllAges/UsefulInformation/WifiSafety.aspx 

Ministry of Education. (2014). School Network Upgrade Project (SNUP). Retrieved from http://www.minedu.govt.nz/NZEducation/EducationPolicies/Schools/Initiatives/ICTInSchools/ICTInitiativesAndProgrammes/ICTInfrastructure/SNUP.aspx

Ministry of Education. (2014). The National Administrative Guidelines. Retrieved from http://www.minedu.govt.nz/theMinistry/EducationInNewZealand/EducationLegislation/TheNationalAdministrationGuidelinesNAGs.aspx

Moir, J. (2013, December 30) School turns off Wi-Fi after parent’s fears. The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz

Netsafe. (2014). Wi-Fi Safety in New Zealand Schools. Retrieved from http://www.netsafe.org.nz/wi-fi-safety-in-new-zealand-schools/
Network For Learning. (2014). N4L. Retrieved from http://www.n4l.co.nz

Peyman, A.; Khalid, M.; Calderon, C.; Addison, D.; Mee, T.; Maslanyj, M.; Mann, S. (2011). Assessment of Exposure to electromagnetic fields from wireless computer networks (WI-FI) in schools; results of laboratory measurements. Health Physics: Volume 100 - Issue 6 - pp 594-612

Pinola, M. (2014) What is Wi-Fi – About Technology. Retrieved fromhttp://mobileoffice.about.com/od/glossary/g/wi-fi.htm

Public Health England. (2013). Wi-Fi radio waves and health. Retrieved from
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/wireless-networks-wi-fi-radio-waves-and-health/wi-fi-radio-waves-and-health

Public Health England. (2013). Wi-Fi – the HPA research project. Retrieved from
http://www.hpa.org.uk/web/HPAweb&HPAwebStandard/HPAweb_C/1287142601165

Statistics New Zealand. (2012). Household Use of Information and Communication Technology: 2012. Retrieved from http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/industry_sectors/information_technology_and_communications/HouseholdUseofICT_HOTP2012/Commentary.aspx

The Economist. (2004). A Brief History of Wi-Fi. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/node/2724397

Wannan, O. (2013, March 3). Waves of uncertainty over Wi-Fi. The Dominion. Retrieved from http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/9882716/Waves-of-uncertainty-over-wi-fi 

Wi-Fi in Schools Australia. (2014) Wi-Fi in Schools. Retrieved from 
http://www.wifi-in-schools-australia.org

World Health Organisation. (2014) Electromagnetic Fields (EMF). Retrieved from http://www.who.int/peh-emf/about/WhatisEMF/en/index5.html

WIFI A BALANCED APPROACH

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