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C U L8er, SF

Thu, 06/24/2010 - 12:52pm

At a time when so much wireless innovation is coming out of the San Francisco Bay Area, it's kind of surprising that its politicians would be taking such a negative view of the technology.
CTIA issued a statement yesterday saying the 2010 CTIA Enterprise and Applications show in October will be the last one it will have in San Francisco for the foreseeable future. Too bad, SF, because the show, which has been in San Francisco five times in the last seven years, brought in almost $80 million to the Bay Area economy.

But the San Francisco Board of Supervisors made their bed, passing the so-called "Cell Phone Right-to-Know" ordinance that requires retailers to list specific absorption rate (SAR) levels on phones. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who purportedly loves his iPhone, is expected to sign off on it.

Leaving the Bay Area sounds at first like an extreme reaction to what's essentially an ordinance about labeling. Besides being onerous, what's wrong with retailers posting each phone's SAR at the point of sale? 

It isn't that simple, according to CTIA Vice President of Public Affairs John Walls. The FCC has set an already conservative threshold of 1.6 watts per kilogram, and only phones that pass that threshold are legally sold in the United States. Anything at or below that level is deemed safe. It's like driving under a highway overpass with a clearance sign of 12 feet. It doesn't matter if your vehicle is six feet high or 10 feet high, it still passes through safely. 

The problem is a smartphone, for example, might carry an SAR of 1.4 while a feature phone across the aisle bears a level of 1.0. A consumer might be inclined to buy the feature phone if the SAR is top of mind when shopping for a phone. The smartphone might have a higher SAR because it was measured with three radios – Wi-Fi, cellular and Bluetooth – going full tilt when in reality, all three usually are not in full simultaneous operation.

There's no quibble about meeting the standard, Walls says. It's the perception it leaves with consumers that one device might be "better" than another.

As one might expect, CTIA's decision to take its business elsewhere did not come without a great deal of discussion, Walls assures me. CTIA worked hard to present the facts and educate the board in San Francisco, he says, and the association would rather not leave the city. (The mayor could still change his mind, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen.)

"It was clear to us that we weren't wanted there… so let's go to a city and venue that has a more responsible and reasonable perspective on the industry and all the great things it does for people," Walls says.

CTIA says other cities already have expressed an interest in being a site for its show. It could even stay in California; those details are being worked out.

I just find a lot of ironies in all of this. CTIA's board had to sign off on this decision, and the board happens to be led by Chairman Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility & Consumer Markets, exclusive carrier of the iPhone. Yes, carrier for the iPhone 4 that ships this week. The phone with the very OS and unique antenna that Apple CEO Steve Jobs not too long ago unveiled at San Francisco's Moscone Center.

The city also happens to be home to many consumers who complained, rightfully so, that they were getting dropped calls on AT&T's network and the carrier had to make major network improvements to better that situation. Maybe Steve's new antenna will help, too. (Check the SAR level before you buy.)

San Francisco has a well-earned reputation for being at the forefront of debate: Bans on plastic grocery bags spring to mind, and the mayor once again is calling for a "Soda-Free Summer" for kids. There's nothing wrong with knowing the information about SAR levels, but posting it without a full explanation of what it means could do more harm than good.

The Bay Area is teaming with experts who today work at the wireless industry's highest-profile companies. Too bad the supervisory board didn't Google them. 

 

 

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