San Francisco recently became the first city, that I know of, anyway, to require that cellular handset retailers post the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) value for handsets sold within the City. SAR is a highly-technical and (IMHO) likely inaccurate method of indicating just how much energy a handset is putting out, and is measured in Watts/Kilogram averaged over one gram of tissue. There is at present no known correlation between SAR values at any level and any particular incidence of brain tumors or other ill health effects, just as such does not exist for handsets in general, but the politicians who run San Francisco believe that consumers should be given this information regardless. Better safe (or, at least, informed) than sorry, the saying goes.
The fallout has started. In addition to the usual debate on the Web and elsewhere about any possible health issues related to using a wireless handset, the wireless industry's key trade association, the CTIA, is moving its big Fall convention, held in San Francisco for the past seven years, to another venue. CTIA notes in a press release that this means loss to the City of 68,000 or so visitors, plus about $80 million in business. This kind of political retaliation is not uncommon today; the reaction by California and other states to the Arizona illegal-immigrant (nominally, anyway) law comes to mind. But I'm sure that San Francisco's Board of Supervisors really couldn't care less, as they believe that their service to the cause of public health is far more important than money.
And, of course, it is, or at least, would be, if SAR actually meant anything to a consumer. My guess is that most consumers, armed with the knowledge that people are not, at least to date, dropping dead from acoustic neuromas, will do what they always do - buy the coolest phone they can, SAR be damned or at least ignored.
While we'd all love to see this issue, the only big one left in wireless, really, resolved once and for all, don't count on it any time soon. I've received a number of calls from people who point out that all studies to date have been inconclusive at best. But, in this case, inconclusive is in fact good - since we're trying to prove a negative, which can't be done, after all, there are only two possible outcomes - yes, handsets cause disease, or we just don't know. We will never be able to say definitively that handsets are harmless. But it's my belief that, in general, they are, based on the research I've done to date. But, as I just noted, we'll never be done here.
I personally don't have a big problem with giving consumers lots of information. But engaging in self-delusion that a particular piece of data has more value than it really does only clouds the issue - often with, as we see in this case, severe negative repercussions.
Mathias is a principal at Farpoint Group, a wireless advisory firm in Ashland, Mass.