On Call: CTIA to ditch San Francisco

After San Francisco votes to require SAR information on cell phone packaging, CTIA votes to move its autumn trade show to Southern California.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
3 min read

Industry groups naturally tend to protect their own, and after playing with San Francisco for several years the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) is now taking its ball and going home.

On Tuesday, the association said in a statement that it would no longer hold its autumn trade show in San Francisco after this year's event in October. CTIA, which represents the wireless industry in the United States, is not happy that the city's Board of Supervisors recently voted to require cell phone manufacturers (PDF) to display the specific absorption rate (SAR) for each handset sold.

"Rather than inform, the ordinance will potentially mislead consumers with point of sale requirements suggesting that some phones are 'safer' than others based on radio frequency emissions," the statement said. "In fact, all phones sold legally in the U.S. must comply with the Federal Communications Commission's safety standards for RF emissions. According to the FCC, all such compliant phones are safe phones as measured by these standards."

Though the CTIA is correct that a lower SAR phone isn't necessarily safer, it's ironic that in the process of accusing San Francisco of oversimplifying the issue, the CTIA is doing the exact same thing. Yes, all phones sold in the United States must conform to FCC standards (a SAR of 1.6 watts per kilogram or lower), but there is still no scientific consensus that cell phone radio frequency is or is not harmful. That's a fact CTIA should face, whether it likes it or not.

Even the long-awaited Interphone study, which the cell phone industry partially funded, was largely inconclusive. "Overall, no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma was observed with use of mobile phones," the study said. "There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels, but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation."

In the face of this lack of scientific evidence, CNET has always encouraged readers to stay informed about cell phone radiation and make decisions based on their comfort levels. If you are concerned, we offer several recommendations. One is choosing a phone with a lower SAR (see CNET's cell phone radiation charts for more information), but that may do little besides make you feel better for the reasons outlined above. To really reduce exposure, you're much better off using a headset.

It's would be one thing if San Francisco were to sidestep FCC authority and require cell phone makers to lower SARs even further, and it would be another if it were to start interpreting studies and drawing scientific conclusions. In this case, however, the city is mandating that information be made available. As long as it offers the proper context--that a phone's SAR can change many times when on a call--it's not necessarily misleading. Sure, consumers can get the SAR from the user manual, but they usually get the phone home before they read it.

You can roll your eyes about "loony left" or "nanny state" San Francisco politics--trust me, I've lived here for 18 years, so I know--but the law is not the issue here. Rather, I'm more concerned with the CTIA's reaction. Consumers are concerned about cell phone radiation and I hear from them every day. The CTIA needs to recognize that and do its best to keep consumers informed.