Now There Are Two Towns That Ban Cell Service
If you think you saw representative democracy at its worst during the recent U.S. debt-ceiling standoff, consider the case of Yaremche in western Ukraine.
A ski resort in the picturesque foothills of the Carpathian mountains, Yaremche, population 10,000, seized the national spotlight when the town council ordered the local hospital to stop leasing space to mobile-phone companies. The telecom operators used the hospital, located at the center of town, to deploy their base stations, providing cellular coverage to the surrounding area. The town wanted the transmitters gone.
People living next door to the hospital have long complained that the base stations' proximity made them unwell. Radiophobia is widespread in Ukraine since the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant not far from the capital, Kiev. In the case of the base stations, the fears are overblown. According to the World Health Organization, while using mobile phones may increase the probability of cancer, "studies to date provide no indication that environmental exposure to radiofrequency fields, such as from base stations, increases the risk of cancer or any other disease."
The local authorities of Yaremche, however, took the complaints seriously. They sent a crew of experts to measure radiation in and around the hospital. The team found nothing that exceeded the permissible levels of radiation, which are lower in Ukraine than in other European countries.
Locals were not appeased. They went to the town council, which on Sept. 26 voted unanimously to terminate the leases of both mobile-phone operators that had base stations in Yaremche, MTS and Kyivstar. They were ordered to shut down the stations from Oct. 1 and dismantle them by Jan. 1.
The operators held out for an extra month, but finally powered down the base stations on Oct. 31. Locals and tourists were plunged into the pre-mobile era. Emergency services and ATMs went offline.
Viktor Zagreba, a local resident and a graduate of University of Maryland at College Park, spearheaded protests against the mobile shutdown. "We hope that common sense will prevail over the savage obscurantism that muddled the minds of the 33 town council members when they voted to ban mobile communications in our resort town," he wrote on Facebook.
The town council has agreed to reconsider its decisions at a general town meeting, set for Nov. 4. Until then, Yaremche is off the grid.
The town's trip into the cellular-free age may set a local record: When in 2009 the local authorities of another Ukrainian town, Belgorod Dnestrovsky, made a similar decision, outraged citizens made sure the "radio silence" lasted only a few hours. A legal challenge mounted by mobile operators in Yaremche could take a long time to get through Ukraine's courts.
Yaremche joins the only other town in the world where mobile communications are banned -- Green Hill, West Virginia. There, the ban has a good reason: The town lies in the middle of the United States National Radio Quiet Zone. It is home to the world's biggest steerable radio telescope, and signals from private devices could interfere with the sensitive scientific equipment.
In Ukraine, the ban is simply the result of ignorance backed up by the power of elected democracy. Sounds familiar? Well, in that case it might make sense to vote for smarter people to avoid disruptions like the one in Yaremche -- and the recent one in Washington.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor. Follow him on Twitter.)