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Belt clips live on in smartphone radiation testing

Stephen Lawson | July 13, 2015
The FCC's radiation standards for your smartphone date back to the 1990s. But that's OK. You use a belt clip, don't you?

The FCC's radiation standards for your smartphone date back to the 1990s. But that's OK. You use a belt clip, don't you?

That hallmark of turn-of-the-century tech fashion is largely forgotten these days. That is, until you look at product manuals for some of the newest smartphones on the market. In the fine print about safety, Samsung, Motorola, HTC and LG all talk about accessories that keep a handset at least one centimeter away from your body, as if malls were still full of kiosks selling these things to Abercrombie-clad teens.

That fine print became an issue earlier this year in Berkeley, California, when the city government passed a law that would require stores to direct their customers' attention to the radiation-risk language in cellphone user manuals. Like other proposed laws about phone radiation, it's come under legal fire from the mobile industry.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission says there's no scientific evidence that RF (radiofrequency) radiation from mobile phones causes cancer, headaches, dizziness or other health effects that some critics say are linked to the devices. But it does define how much radiation a smartphone is allowed to emit, using guidelines adopted in 1996. The FCC's rules for testing those emissions likewise harken back to the age of the rave party, though the agency has begun looking into changes.

Manufacturers have to conduct two tests to measure how much RF energy a test dummy absorbs from each phone. One of the tests simulates talking on the phone, with the handset right up against the dummy's head. The other is intended to show how much radiation a body would get just from carrying the device. That's where things get a little weird.

The FCC lets manufacturers decide how far from the dummy their phones are tested.

They have a choice of two standards, according to an information page on the FCC's website. One is for devices "designed to operate on the body of users using lanyards or straps, or without requiring additional body-worn accessories." Those devices need to have a "test separation distance" of no more than five millimeters from the dummy.

The other standard is designed to account for accessories that keep the phone away from the user's body. It allows for a test separation distance of as much as 2.5 centimeters, though it lets vendors go closer if they want. "This distance is determined by the handset manufacturer, according to the typical body-worn accessories users may acquire at the time of equipment certification," the FCC page says.

"May" is the key word in that sentence. Sure, people can still buy a holster or a belt clip for a brand-new smartphone. But will they?

 

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