Why All the Lies About Cell Phones?

Opinion: Airplane crews still tell passengers that cell phones will disrupt navigation and hospitals post signs that phoning home will wreak havoc with X-Rays. Both are lies.

In most hospitals today, signs are posted banning cell phones because they could interfere with hospital equipment. Many years ago, that was actually true.

But improvements in cell phones in the last decade have made the interference non-existent today, unless someone is using a very old first-generation cell phone.

So why are these bans still plentiful today? Is it that hospital staffs are unaware of the cell phone changes? Have they not gotten around to taking the signs down? Hardly.

/zimages/2/28571.gifTo read more about Brigham and Womens wireless trials, click here.

Ask Dr. Tom Stair, an attending physician in Brigham and Womens emergency department in Boston. Stair, who is involved in many of the hospitals technology projects, stresses that his people know exactly what theyre doing.

"We still have the signs up to tell people to not use cell phones" even though "our biomedical people have checked cell phone interference out" and found none.

Why keep the signs up, if theres no reason? "Cell phone use would make it very noisy," the doctor said, adding that he and other doctors use their personal cell phone frequently and "weve even got our Wi-Fi net in the emergency department."

But hospitals aren’t alone in cellphone misperceptions.

As flight attendants demonstrate the intricacies of the modern-day seatbelt buckle, passengers today are warned that federal regulations prohibit the use of cell phones while the plane is airborne.

The popular perception is that the federal regulation comes from the Federal Aviation Administration—the government’s airplane people—and that it is to prevent interference from airplane controls. The reality is that it’s not clear whether or not it will provide interference—pilots still debate this point—but the reason behind the ruling is more based on interruptions to cellular service on the ground.

Although both the FAA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have regulations about cellphone usage, the FCC’s concerns were more land-based. Apparently, when cellphones are used at the altitudes and speed of airplanes, their speed can cause problems when signals are handed off from tower to tower much more quickly than ever intended. Also, for satellite communications, the much-greater-than-originally-assumed proximity to satellites allows them to grab signals in a way not intended.

/zimages/2/28571.gifTo read Cingular’s problems matching data with cellphone service, click here.

The concern was that it will make it more difficult for people on the ground to get and hold a cellphone connection. The potential for airplanes collectively carrying tens of thousands of cell-phoner users at any one time to disrupt cellphone calls on the ground is the reason for the regulation.

Why don’t airlines just say that? Because an early clever bureaucrat concluded that passengers would rigidly obey a rule that otherwise might cause their plane to crash, but would be much less motivated if the potential risk is to some unknown person on the ground who might have to redial a few more times.

Pilots today do report strange interference and many have suspected that passenger electronics were the cause, but testing that in a definitive fashion is too dangerous.

The hospital issue is more direct, though. In a hospital, theres not a big life and liberty reason to not use cell phones. Its more of a niceness thing. So, yes, I can see why lying was a decent strategy.

Evan Schuman is retail editor for Ziff Davis Internets Enterprise Edit group. He has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesnt plan to stop anytime soon. He can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.

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