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This particular nightmare may not be totally hypothetical for the wireless industry. Public fear is driving further government-funded research into the link between wireless phone use and cancer. Although previous studies showed no connection between illness and radio frequency (RF) from cell phones, you have to wonder: If these new studies do reveal health hazards, who in the industry would be hardest hit and what could they do to protect themselves?
"It would be usual for litigants to sue everyone in sight, but it is the manufacturers, not the carriers, that are more likely to be found liable," says Stephen Greyser, professor of marketing and communications at Harvard Business School.
Wireless operators may not be the prime legal targets, but they could be affected by a lighter demand for service and a resulting decrease in revenue. "Subscribers would probably just be less inclined to spend extended periods on their wireless phones, hampering some demand for the larger, 1,000-minutes-a-month plans," says Ken Hyers, wireless strategist at Cahners In-Stat Group (Newton, Mass.).
The industry was already hit in 1993 by dozens of lawsuits alleging that RF from the phones caused brain tumors. Since then, millions of dollars have been spent researching the issue, but positive results have not eased public angst.
For the wireless industry, the catch to staying out of legal trouble and preventing shrinking revenue would be to keep the public informed about research developments. Litigation against the tobacco industry over its link to a range of deadly diseases hinges on whether those companies hid information regarding the dangers of its products from consumers.
Perhaps learning from that experience, the wireless industry is already making moves to give consumers more advice about any potential risks. In July, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA, Washington, D.C.) said it would require mobile phone makers to disclose information on the radiation levels produced by their handsets-similar to health warnings on cigarette and alcohol packages.
As for manufacturers, they would be rushed to quickly produce less RF-intensive handsets if new studies revealed health problems. And hands-free headsets are not the answer: A recent U.K. study shows using such devices directs three times as much RF into the brain as holding the phone to the head.
A new generation of wireless connections between the earpiece and the phone could be one answer. A more likely solution, argues Hyers, would be for mobile phone vendors to develop an RF shield to protect users. Given the ever-shrinking size of handsets, he also expects it would have little impact on handset size or weight, although carriers are likely to face increased handset charges of perhaps $10 a phone.
Whatever the best means of battling the potential problem, the wireless industry should heed a warning of its own: Not being forthright could be detrimental to its health.