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Science & Technology
Disposable Cellular Phones

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Prof. Dr. Matin A. Khan
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From Diana J. Choyce
Feb 14 - 20, 2000

There is no end to creativity

As technology grows by leaps and bounds, there seems no end to man's creativity. Some ideas are incredibly fruitful and have a positive impact on mankind. One cannot be sure whether the idea of disposable phones fit that category. We already have far too many "throw away" items on a planet that can't afford to continue storing trash. But man's quest for more efficient ways of doing things leads him to some interesting ideas.

This new concept comes from the engineers at Motorola. They plan to open a project development lab this spring with the help of researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The project will look for ways to develop a credit card sized cellular phone, that fits inside a rather inexpensive plastic holder. The card will have slim round bumps that provide a keypad similar to what we use now. It will include a miniature earpiece, microphone, hair-size antenna, and a processor chip. One would buy the phone that is loaded with the amount of minutes they plan on using. Once your minutes are used up, you just go buy another phone and dispose of the old one. One sincerely hopes that before these phones go to market, a way of recycling them will also be found.

The force behind this idea seems to be the need to open a vertical area in the prepaid cellular market. And to make prepaid wireless more efficient and convenient. It is estimated that more than 5.3 million Americans are using these prepaid plans. And they account for 2.3 billion of the industry's 51 billion in revenues. These plans are usually used by people with credit records that don't meet the normal standards for wireless monthly plans. Normally one pays between $50.00 to $100.00 for the phone, and then buys prepaid minute cards for $25.00 to $100.00 depending on how much time they think they will use. This choice of times is important because the time must be used within 60 days, when a new card must be purchased in order to save any time leftover from the last one. This can become very expensive and the cost rounds out to over a dollar a minute. But this industry is becoming more and more popular as in most cases it is the only way common people can make use of wireless service.

Motorola already has a prototype of the disposable phone, but bringing it to market will require much more research. One need is to reduce the power needed to run the phone. One researcher, Rob Poor, has been working on a concept he calls "embedded networking" that could prove crucial to making disposable phones work, by greatly reducing the amount of power they need to function. Normally a cellular phone needs enough power to send its signal at least 6 to 10 miles to a receiving tower. And in rural areas this distance is even greater which is why rural areas have a difficult time in just having a service to use. Also these batteries are large and would not suit the credit card size of the new phones. So the concept being studied is to have each phone "piggy back" on the nearest phone and do a leap frog route to the nearest tower. This would require having as many phones in service as possible in order to keep the signal going to its final destination. The power demand would be in microwatts instead of watts, and thus batteries could be as small as to fit in a wristwatch. This project has only just started, and one can expect it to take a few years before it comes to market. But the way technology is advancing, it won't be long before one will find a disposable phone hanging right next to the disposable cameras at the corner store.

Motorola has been working very hard at making its Web Without Wires project a household name. It has already introduced an internet capable cell phone called the I series. Its top of the line model I1000 boasts a built-in microbrowser one can use to surf the net on the go. This model can also be hooked into a laptop to provide access to internet services when one is not near a land based phone. And it weighs only 5.4 ounces. Although these phones are available one should not expect them to be anywhere near similar to using a computer or laptop. It has limited access to web pages because it needs a whole different coding to view them than is used for normal web pages. Many cellular companies are hoping that more pages will be adjusted for viewing as this new "ramp" to the information highway is embraced. I for one, am not ready to have the internet follow me where ever I go. But the concept is beneficial for business use as more and more companies go mobile. It would certainly be a more efficient and stable way to keep in touch with home base and local files. However, I still like to think that just shutting everything off, putting ones feet up and enjoying life, is a concept that we continue to embrace. There's always tomorrow to pick up the pace again.