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Ask Maggie: On cell phone safety and avoiding data charges

If you've got wireless questions, CNET's Maggie Reardon has answers. Today's burning question is whether to wait to buy a new smartphone or get one now.

It's time to Ask Maggie again.

This week has been a busy one with the launch of the new Apple iPhone 4 and Motorola's new Android-based Droid X. With new smartphones hitting the market, many consumers are deciding whether they should buy something new now or wait to see what comes out later this year. Readers this week also asked about service plans, wireless operator upgrade plans, and getting the most bang for your buck--and even about cell phone safety.

Readers responded well to last week's call for questions. Unfortunately, I couldn't get to everyone's questions, but I tried to choose a sampling that would answer some key themes I've heard over the past week from consumers.

Please keep the questions coming. If you've got something you'd like me to consider for next week's column, send an e-mail to me at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. If I don't know the answer to your question, I'll do some digging and find out.

Waiting for the next big thing

Dear Maggie,
Currently I am on an AT&T family plan with two lines (both flip phones) and my original contract expires in September. My daughter will be going to the middle school in the fall so we want to get her a phone for her birthday this summer. However, trying to decide what direction to go in is making me dizzy.

It seems to me that the industry is in a transition phase (I guess that may always be true), but data technologies are certainly transitioning. I am enticed by the new iPhone 4, but with 4G and HSPA+ coming out next year, I don't feel like locking into a new two-year agreement this year.

Am I overthinking things? Am I setting myself up to always put things off for the "next thing"? Is it wise to wait until next year to enter into a commitment? Should I just throw a dart on a board and go with whoever it lands on? Should I see what happens between now and September?

Any thoughts or advice would be greatly appreciated.

Dear Ron,
It sounds like you have some commitment issues, or at least trouble making up your mind. And I feel your pain. Choosing a cell phone and a carrier is a lot like dating. There are tons of choices and there's always something better just around the corner. But if you keep waiting, you might be stuck with those old flip phones or something less desirable for another few months or even years.

The good news is that unlike choosing a mate, you won't be stuck with whatever phone you eventually buy for the rest of your life. Contracts generally only last a couple of years and then you can move on to the next new hot model.

So take a deep breath and relax. Right now, the smartphone choices on the market are great. The Sprint Evo 4G is getting high marks from reviewers and customers. The new Motorola Droid X is about to go on sale at Verizon Wireless, and of course the iPhone 4 on AT&T is out on the market.

You mentioned 4G technologies and advanced HSPA+ services. Currently, Sprint is the only carrier with 4G service available commercially. It is up and running in a number of cities around the country, but it doesn't offer complete coverage. This means that in many places the phone will still switch over to the 3G network, even in markets where service is supposedly available.

Verizon Wireless says it's on track to launch its 4G wireless network by the end of this year. But it uses a different technology called LTE. And from my conversations with chipmakers, it will be at least the middle of 2011 before there is a handset available that can use this network.

T-Mobile USA is quickly expanding its HSPA+ network that delivers three times more speed than older 3G technologies. But right now, the only products using that network are data sticks that slot into laptops. T-Mobile won't have an HSPA+ phone available until later this year at the earliest.

AT&T is even further behind in its HSPA+ deployment than T-Mobile.

The problem with these faster networks is that it takes time to build out the network coverage and to get the handsets on the market. So you have time.

You could wait six months or a year, but in order to get the full benefits of these new networks you'll have to wait at least a couple of years anyway. And by that time, your service contract on the phone you buy today will be up.

The WiMax Vs. LTE debate

Dear Maggie,
I have been hearing a lot of talk about WiMax vs LTE. Is there a competition between the two for 4G? I know that Sprint already offers WiMax, but does it REALLY have the data rates the 4G is supposed to have? Can you clear up the muddiness on this issue, please?

Thanks a lot,

Dear Josh,
WiMax and LTE are each considered 4G wireless technologies. And though there are some technical differences, the technologies have more in common than, say, GSM and CDMA cellular technologies.

But there are some differences, which means that products made for WiMax will not work on an LTE network and vice versa. Clearwire, which is building the 4G network that Sprint Nextel is using to deliver 4G service, is using WiMax. Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and a number of other major cell phone operators around the globe are using or plan to use LTE for their next-generation networks.

From a consumer's standpoint, I don't think it's anything you need to worry about. Clearwire says its network is getting between 3Mbps and 6Mbps download speeds. Verizon claims it can get average download speeds between 6Mbps and 12Mpbs. Of course, Clearwire's network is commercially available today, and Verizon's has not been launched yet. So it's difficult to accurately compare the two networks. My guess is that the speeds will be comparable.

It might be the difference between a 3G network using HSPA versus one using EV-DO. And how many people can really tell the difference in speed? Even if you can, it's difficult to attribute the difference to the underlying technology that is making one network faster than another. Network speed is dependent on so many other factors, such as how many people are using the network, how close the carrier has built the cell sites, and the list goes on.

Since most of the market is moving toward LTE, eventually Clearwire will move in this direction too. The company's CEO has already said that it hasn't ruled out using LTE in future upgrades to its network.

Dangers of cell phones

Dear Maggie,
Now that the antenna system on the new iPhone is the silver casing around the phone, my question is whether it is dangerous to be in direct contact with that antenna system due to radiation exposure? Please advise and I would appreciate your honest perspective.

Dear Dee,
The antenna on the iPhone 4 is likely no more dangerous than any other cell phone antenna. But that begs the question: How safe are cell phone antennas in general? The answer to that is that I simply don't know. Some studies suggest that heavy cell phone use (over 10 hours a day) can increase risks of brain cancer. But other studies refute these claims.

I attended a meeting of leading scientists on cell phone radiation and cancer research last year in Washington, D.C., and the biggest takeaway I got from the presentations and talking directly to the scientists is that more research is needed to find out the answer.

What we do know is that cell phones emit radiation. Radiation can be absorbed into the human body. And parts of the body where cell phones are in most direct contact, such as the head, tend to absorb the most radiation.

Now, does this radiation increase the risk of cancer? That is still the question yet to be answered. Some radiation, such as X-rays, is known to alter cell mutation. But the kind of radiation emitted by cell phones has always been believed not to cause cell damage.

The FCC provides information about the amount of radiation that cell phones emit. CNET has put together a special guide to help you.

If you are worried about the potential hazards associated with using the new iPhone 4 or any other cell phone, you can take a few simple precautions to minimize your exposure.

  • Wear a headset when talking on the phone.
  • Text instead of talk.
  • Turn your cell phone off when you're not using it.
  • If you leave it on while you sleep, put your phone across the room and not close to your head.
  • Carry your phone in a purse or bag and not in your pocket to avoid direct contact with your body.
  • Don't allow children to use a cell phone. Kids have smaller heads than adults and theirs absorb much more radiation. So keep phones out of reach until their bodies, especially their skulls, are fully developed.

It's impractical to think anyone would give up their cell phone. We've become too dependent on them. Cell phones are an important part of our everyday lives. But informed consumers can weigh the risks themselves. Think of it this way. Riding in a car is dangerous. But it hasn't kept you from driving to work or the grocery store, right?

There might be some risk associated with using any cell phone--until we know for certain. You can do things to lessen those potential risks--just like wearing a seat belt can lessen the chances you'll be killed or seriously hurt in a car accident.

Gauging data usage

Dear Maggie,
I'm considering getting the new iPhone, but I was surprised to find out AT&T chopped their unlimited plan, so I'm debating whether or not to get it now. I'm just an average mobile user probably. I visit Facebook multiple times throughout the day in places without Wi-Fi, and YouTube occasionally. I like page browsing from time to time as well. Do you think the new 2GB plan will have enough data to cover me for a month?

Dear Shane,

According to Nielsen, the average iPhone subscriber uses 400MB of data per month. That's well below the 2GB cap of the new data plans. AT&T says that, on average, 65 percent of its customers use less than 200MB per month, and it claims 98 percent of its smartphone customers use, on average, less than 2GB of data per month. So statistically, you should be all right, based on the kind of usage you described.

But usage patterns are likely to change. According to BillShrink, a company that analyzes cell phone bills and advises people on the best service for their usage patterns, data consumption on smartphones has increased 3.5 times in the past 18 months.

What this means is that in the future, you and the rest of the smartphone-using population out there will likely increase your data usage. New applications, such as Netflix and Skype, are likely to eat up more data. Video- and audio-streaming applications, in particular, will consume more data.

But Schwark Satyavolu, CEO of BillShrink, said average users should be fine with the current caps. Still, he cautions that heavy usage could be a problem.

For instance, listening to Pandora for three to five hours at a time could be a problem. Watching one or two movies a day could also get your monthly usage close to the 2GB mark. Using Google Maps several hours a day every day could also almost reach that limit. Using Skype as the primary way to call people will also get consumers close to their data limit.

Using the iPhone without data service

Dear Maggie,
I am under contract without a data plan and I've been using a regular LG phone. Recently, I bought an unlocked iPhone 3GS from eBay for $499. I started using it with my AT&T SIM card from my LG phone. Six months passed without any problems. On June 7, AT&T sent me a text message that they added a data plan to my contract because I am using an iPhone.

How can AT&T charge me for this? I just wanted to use the phone with Wi-Fi.


Dear Siva,
Unfortunately, AT&T requires all smartphones activated on its network to have a data plan, regardless of whether you bought the phone from AT&T or not. The iPhone in particular must have data because some of the services, like visual voice mail, use the data network, explained an AT&T representative.

But if you just wanted to use your iPhone as a Wi-Fi device, you can do that without subscribing to a data plan, so long as it is not activated on the AT&T network. This means that you can use it as a music player, and you could use the Skype Internet calling app on the phone, if you are in a Wi-Fi hot spot.

So I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is no way to avoid the data service charge unless you do not use the iPhone as a phone at all on AT&T's network.