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No blues for Bluetooth: it powers the wireless growth engine.

It's certainly no secret that the world is going wireless. The wireless revolution, like the Internet revolution of the last decade, is universally considered to be a good thing. It enables freedom of movement, it connects remote areas where stringing wires cannot be economically achieved, and it brings users vast amounts of information and new services.

Perhaps no technology better illustrates this momentum than Bluetooth, which--after years in development--is finally putting cell phones and other mobile devices in ad-hoc personal area networks (PANs), allowing them to connect to one another and to the Internet. A recent study by market research firm InStat/MDR reports that, despite delays of some very large, planned 2001 chipset shipments from December to the first quarter of the year, shipments of Bluetooth chipsets will climb into the hundreds of millions of units in as little as four years.

But two other reports illustrate some unintended consequences of wireless, and the news is distressing: Mobile devices are increasingly creating large amounts of dangerous waste, and the cumulative radiation they release may be cause for alarm.

No Blues for Bluetooth

Bluetooth is on a roll, and all current indications are that it will be a successful competitor in the wireless space. The InStat/MDR report says that chipsets will surge from 10.4 million units in 2001 to 690 million units in 2006. This represents a five-year, 132% compound annual growth rate, with silicon revenue rising to $2.7 billion in 2006. Bluetooth-enabled equipment will climb to 644 million units over the same period and cars with Bluetooth chipsets will begin arriving next year.

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), which develops Bluetooth standards, is now concentrating on expanding the types of products that the technology supports. Mike McCamon, executive director of the Bluetooth SIG, believes that, right now, the critical thing is making a stable platform that allows all new products to work together seamlessly. "Japan has consumer products (camcorders, notebooks, PDAs); Europe has cell phones and headsets; and the U.S. has PC-centric devices. All of these can work together [using the Bluetooth standard], which is pretty incredible."

In order to expand the types of devices that use Bluetooth, getting a faster spec is a consideration. "With more products becoming available on the market, the next hurdles are to bring more user applications and high-rate Bluetooth to market," said Joyce Putscher, director of InStat/MDR's Converging Markets and Technologies Group.

McCamon indicates that work is progressing in several SIG working groups to create new profiles that adapt the specification to new markets, including imaging, audio and video, and high-speed file transfer. In particular, the high-rate radio group is working on a faster Bluetooth radio that, it now seems likely, will make its appearance sometime late this or early next year in Bluetooth 2.0.

"The SIG has been shooting for about 12Mbps with 10Mbps throughput," said InStat's Putscher. "In my estimation, assuming that the specification is passed this year, we could see the beginnings of products by 2H2003, but primarily in 2004."

The Wages of Wireless

If we only listened to industry analysts and special interest groups, of course, we would be hard-pressed to find negative news about wireless technology whatsoever. Analysts outside of the computer industry, however, see some dark clouds among the silver linings.

"Waste in the Wireless World: The Challenge of Cell Phones," a provocative new study released by the national environmental research organization INFORM, says that the wireless boom is producing more than just cool new products. It is also creating increasing amounts of dangerous waste, and the study sees the problem getting much worse over the next several years.

The report says that the average cell phone is typically used for 18 months before being replaced; by 2005 about 130 million phones will be retired annually in the U.S. "There has been lots of research on the waste created by PCs, but not by cell phones, and with so many functions now shifting to phones, we felt this was important research," said Bette Fishbein, INFORM Senior Fellow and the report's author. "But the growth in their use has been so enormous that the environmental and public health impacts of the waste they create are a significant concern. We are also hearing about disposable cell phones, so now is the time to address these issues."

According to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, a phone industry trade group, there are currently about 129 million cell phone subscribers in the U.S (in 1998 there were 70 million). According to the INFORM report, by 2005 there will be about 200 million cell phones in use in this country, and that at that time there will be a stockpile of 500 million cell phones that have been "retired" and are ready to enter the nation's waste stream.

According to the report, toxic substances contained in cell phones include a number of persistent and bioaccumulative toxic chemicals (PBTs), which have been associated with cancer and reproductive, neurological, and developmental disorders. (PBTs pose a particular threat to children, whose developing organ and immune systems are highly susceptible to toxins.) PBTs in cell phones include arsenic, antimony, beryllium, cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, and zinc. Additional health threats, according to Fishbein, are posed by brominated flame retardants used in plastic components. These toxics can leach into soil and groundwater from landfills and form highly toxic dioxins and furans during incineration and recycling.

The report calls for a reduction in the use of such chemicals, as well as standards for the recycling of mobile device parts (particularly chargers, which have become heavier and bulkier than phones). Interestingly, the report also recommends that there be a single, universal mobile phone standard--but not for the technical reasons that we often hear about in the computer industry.

Rather, Fishbein said, a single global wireless standard would allow adapters and accessories to be used with any phone, reducing waste, and (particularly in the U.S.) would eliminate the need to purchase a new phone when subscribing to a new service. A recent article in the financial journal Barron's indicates that the rate of "churn" in the U.S. mobile phone industry (the switching from one wireless provider to another) is about 30% annually.

Curiously, Fishbein's research indicates--albeit unintentionally--the frenzied pace of wireless innovation. Her report shows that the average life of a cell phone (worldwide) is now just 1.5 years, down from 3 years in 1995; in Japan, the average life of a mobile phone is barely a year. Fishbein notes that, while the byproduct of such innovation is the creation of huge amounts of waste, her report does not even address the waste problems created by other wireless devices (pagers, PDAs), although she adds that it's probably significant. (Fishbein's study was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and grants from several foundations.)

For its part, the cell phone industry and its lobbying groups note that there are cell phone recycling programs available to consumers ( is a major one). But Fishbein pointed out that unless and until there is a financial incentive for consumers to trade in or otherwise recycle phones, the effects of such programs on the amount of cell phone waste will be negligible.

Radiation Research

A second disturbing finding deals with the possible unsafe levels of radiation in some enclosed spaces where mobile phones are often used. The report, titled "Rising Level of Public Exposure to Mobile Phones: Accumulation through Additivity and Reflectivity," by Tsuyoshi Hondou, appears in the Journal of the Physical Society of Japan. Using complex formulas to estimate the reflectivity of surfaces in train cars and elevators, Hondou found that the cumulative effect of multiple people using cell phones in an enclosed space may create radiation levels that exceed the maximum exposure level recommended by the International Committee for Non-Ionising Radiation (ICNIRP).

"When hundreds of mobile phones emit radiation, their total power is found to be comparable to that of a microwave oven or a satellite broadcasting station," the report states. "Thus, the question arises: what is the public exposure level in an area with many sources of electromagnetic wave emission? We show that this level can reach the reference level for general public exposure (ICNIRP Guideline) in daily life. This is caused by the fundamental properties of electromagnetic field, namely, reflection and additivity."

It is generally accepted that radiation emitted by a cell phone or other electronic device decreases dramatically just a foot or two away from the source. However, Hondou's research indicates that in particular environmental situations (a train car is the example given) the surface reflectivity of the metals can create dangerous levels of ambient radiation with as few as 20% of the car's occupants talking on a phone.

Some scientists question the validity of the report's assumptions: for example, the amount of radiation that is reflected back into a space versus that which escapes through windows. However, there is little question that wireless devices are proliferating wildly, and, to date, there have been only a few studies on the cumulative effects on people of a large number of radiation-emitting devices used in enclosed spaces. The FCC is undertaking a broad cell phone health study and has released a statement that says "while no scientific evidence has been published demonstrating harm from short-term exposures to low levels of RF [radiofrequency field] energy, studies are now underway to look at the possible risks of long-term exposures."

Several large studies have also been conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), which also has found no link between RF exposure from cell phones and cancer or other disease, although longer term studies are continuing. "All the information we have to date shows no adverse health effects from the use of mobile phones," said Dr. Michael Repacholi in a research report. Repacholi is Coordinator of WHO's Occupational and Environmental Health Unit and manager of the International Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) Project. "However, most studies have examined the results of whole body exposure to RF fields at levels far higher than those normally associated with wireless communications. With the advent of such devices as walkie-talkies and mobile phones, it has become apparent that few studies address the consequences of localized exposures to RF fields to the head."

Currently, a large epidemiology study is being coordinated in more than 10 countries by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (a specialized cancer research agency of the WHO) to determine if there are links between use of mobile phones and head and neck cancers. The study is should be completed in 2003.

Obviously, the rush to wireless is unlikely to slow because of developments like those discussed here. But these reports do point to a need for further study on the environmental and public-health effects of the proliferation of wireless devices. There are already numerous lawsuits claiming cancer from cell phone use. It's likely that, based on current research, these suits have little chance of success in court. But if long-term research changes our understanding of radiation dangers, the wireless industry will have the mother of all battles on its hands. A carefully managed expansion is preferable to one that has little regard for the unintended consequences of wireless progress.
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Author:Piven, Joshua
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Article Type:Industry Overview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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