The High Price of Cell Phones

by Don Hodges

Posted June 4, 2007

Page updated Tuesday, July 28, 2020

original file:  201KB MS Word File



Cell Phone technology has gone mainstream recently.  Almost everyone, it seems, has a cell phone or similar device.  The advantages of having this technology are readily available and promoted in the advertising for these products, but what about the drawbacks and dangers?  This paper will shine some light on the dark side of widespread cell phone use, including possible radiation exposure and brain injury risk, increased risks of vehicle accidents, the disruptions caused by ringing phones and those who talk on them in inappropriate places, the financial costs of monthly fees and surcharges for services, the high turnover rate of phones resulting in large amounts of e-waste, hand muscle strains from using tiny keyboards, and the reduction of face-to-face personal contact.


Worldwide, over 2 billion people have cell phone subscriptions, and this number is expected to top 3 billion this year.[1]   The advertising for this technology always stresses the benefits and, of course, never mentions any drawback that may arise from the widespread use of these devices.  It is true that cell phones are, in general, quite beneficial, but there is a price, beyond the monthly fees, paid by everyone in a society containing high numbers of cell phone users.

Radiation Effects

Possible radiation exposure and brain injuries may result from carrying and holding cell phones, which, when in use, broadcast high frequency radio waves at varying power levels.  Microwave ovens typically operate at 2.45 GHz[2], while certain types of popular cell phone networks, such as 3G, operate at 2.5 to 2.7 GHz[3], thus the cause for alarm.  Future phones which promise to connect to 802.11g wireless networks will operate at 2.4 GHz.  The International Journal of Cancer recently found that “Long-term users of mobile phones are significantly more likely to develop a certain type of brain tumor on the side of the head where they hold their handsets.”[4]  However, many other studies have suggested that no such link exists.  In order to fully comprehend the risks involved, more thorough and long-term studies need to be done, especially as usage, frequencies, and phone power levels change.

Dialing and Driving

Cell phone users increase their risk of automobile accidents when using phones while driving.  According to a 2005 study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 10 percent of cars on the road during daylight hours have a driver using a cell phone.  The NHTSA’s advice is “to refrain from using a cell phone while driving.” [5]  Another study done in 2006 by the NHTSA showed that dialing, or talking, on a hand held device were the 2nd and 3rd leading causes of car crashes and near-misses.  (The top factor is drowsiness.) [6]  Perhaps these findings, and a dose of common sense, are responsible for new laws which ban dialing and driving.  In California, a new law effective July 1, 2008, will prohibit drivers from using a wireless telephone while driving a vehicle unless the driver uses a hands-free device.  Other states have also placed varying restrictions on using cell phones in a car.[7]

Financial Cost

Consider the financial cost of cell phones.  Getting a new cell phone usually involves entering into a one or two year contract, and breaking this contract can result in a fee as high as $250.[8]  There are standard fees, which can vary from $40 to over $100 per month, which usually include a set number of minutes the phone can be used.  Users can pay as much as 45 cents per minute after exceeding their allotted time.  There are also surcharges for sending and receiving text (SMS) messages, which can cost up to 15 cents each.  A new feature that can send pictures and short video clips are charged at 25 cents each on Cingular.[9]  New ringtones can be downloaded, and at $1.99 each, ringtones that run only 30 seconds can cost twice as much as the full-length version of the same song. All of this may be good news for the cell phone service providers and their stockholders, but it is an added cost for the billions who pay these companies every month to keep the communication device working on their network.

Construction and Disposal

The desire to obtain the latest and greatest phone model is strong for many.  The average life of a cell phone is only about 18 months.  Since there are special offers which give new phones for free when new contracts are signed, it is very easy to see why subscribers will upgrade and discard their old phones shortly after the old contract expires.  The high turnover may also be due partly to rechargeable power cells not recharging properly.  Given the high number of cell phone users, this translates into hundreds of millions of phones being discarded every year worldwide.  A significant amount of resources goes into making cell phones, and great care must be taken to ensure that hazardous materials inside the phones, such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic do not contaminate the environment after the phones are rejected by their users.

Text Message Injury

As text messaging becomes more popular, especially among young people, there are new risks.  In New Jersey, a new law has been proposed to ban sending text messages while driving a car.[10]  Also, there is the risk of repetitive strain injury from typing messages onto tiny keyboards.  According to an online news article from, “The growing use of text messaging on mobile phones could result in an epidemic of repetitive strain injuries, [said the] director of the British RSI Association ... [he] dubbed the new epidemic TMI -- or Text Message Injury – [and] said children especially are prone to painful swelling and inflammation of the fingers and thumbs from sending so many text messages on their phones.” [11]

Camera Phone Misuse

Many cell phones are equipped with digital cameras which can take pictures and shoot video.  This could lead to abuse when used in places such as public restrooms or movie theatres.  Combined with Internet video sharing sites like, an embarrassing video or captured movie can instantly be uploaded and seen by anyone, covered in a Radar Magazine article titled, “Prisoners of Youtube”.[12]

Also, piracy of movies is a top concern of the film industry.  The Motion Picture Association of America reports that the major U.S. motion picture studios lost $6.1 billion in 2005 to piracy worldwide.[13]  Currently, some theatres in Malaysia have had to resort to using military-style night-vision goggles to detect people who are attempting to record movies in their theatres.[14]  As cell phone cameras grow in capacity and become smaller so that they are not as easily detected, this problem can only increase in prevalence.

Exam Cheating

Cell phones are sometimes used by students to cheat on tests.  The phones are used to take photos of tests and students text message each other to get answers to exam questions.  "It's a huge problem…It's been going on pretty much since text messaging was born," said John Becker, principal of West Campus High School in Sacramento, CA.[15]  While students cheating on tests is nothing new, cell phones and text messaging do offer new ways for students to discretely communicate during exams. 

Pornography & Advertising

Pictures and videos on cell phones open up another can of worms:  pornography.  This is especially concerning for parents of young children.  These devices make it very easy for children, or anyone for that matter, to take compromising pictures of others, or themselves, and send them out to the network.

With television and movies on cell phones comes the natural byproduct of advertising.  The early Internet was largely ad-free, and in a few years the current era might similarly be remembered as a golden age, before commercials and other advertising were pushed onto users through their cell phones.  However, it may be too soon to know how large of a problem these two concerns will become.

The Demise of Pay Phones and Highway Call Boxes

Cell phones are contributing to the demise of pay phones and highway call boxes.    For example, in January, 2005, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a transportation agency for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area, removed 950 of 3,615 call boxes from the region’s freeway system, in response to declining call volumes due to increased cell phone usage.[16]  Similar removals of call boxes are occurring in many other states.  As a result, people who suffer car breakdowns and do not own cell phones will, on average, have to walk greater distances along the highway to reach a call box, than they did before the boxes were removed.

Pay phones are also being removed from service in great numbers.  An April, 2002 article from Columbia News Service states:  “The number of pay phones nationwide has decreased nearly 30 percent since 1996, from 2.6 million to 1.9 million, according to statistics from the Federal Communications Commission. Many companies are trying to get out of what they say is an unprofitable business. BellSouth plans to sell all of its 144,000 pay phones within two years.” [17]  Newer data suggests the trend is continuing:  an August 2006 Times-Tribune article states, “In the past nine years, a million pay phones have been shut off in the United States — nearly a 50 percent decrease. Competition with cellular phone companies and maintenance costs [has] led to a 10 percent to 12 percent drop in the number of pay phones each year for the past decade, according to the Federal Communications Commission.”[18]  The reduction in the availability of pay phones means a much greater inconvenience for people who use them regularly.

Privacy Concerns

People’s location can be tracked using their cell phone.  According to the web site[19], “In the past, your general location could be verified by looking at …phone records to determine which tower was used … Now, [the] location can often be pinpointed in real time if [the] phone is turned on. Most current-model phones now include Global Positioning System (GPS) chips, which can determine [the phone’s] coordinates by connecting to satellites. It is likely that the trend of including location-tracking components will continue … [an FCC] initiative requires cell phone carriers to be able to pinpoint their customers' location within 100 meters … However, phones with GPS chips can actually find [them] within a few feet.”  Some might say this is an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

The U.S. government can eavesdrop on a cell phone conversation, even when the phone is turned off.  An article explains, “The FBI can listen to everything you say, even when the cell phone is turned off…The FBI has the ability from a remote location to activate a cell phone and turn its microphone into a listening device that transmits to an FBI listening post … Experts say the only way to defeat it is to remove the cell phone battery.”[20]

Bomb Triggers

Another consideration is the use of cell phones for the detonation of bombs.  While terrorists and insurgents would find other ways to trigger their destructive devices if cell phones were unavailable, cell phones do offer them a cheap and easy way to do it.  In response to this knowledge, when U.S. President George Bush visits Australia in September 2007, he will be shadowed by a cell phone jamming helicopter.[21]  This probably indicates action that is needed to be taken whenever the President goes anywhere that is considered a security risk. 


A Cell Phone Bomb Trigger found in Iraq

Other Losses

It is almost impossible to travel anywhere (in Los Angeles at least) without seeing a cell phone tower sticking up by the side of the road.  A cellular network requires many cell phone towers to be constructed.  These towers are considered unattractive to some, leading to some cell phone towers built to look like trees, or built into existing structures like flag poles.

There are many places where a ringing cell phone is an unwelcome disruption, such as classrooms, concert halls, libraries, restaurants, churches, and movie theatres, creating a social nuisance.  Many of these locations post notices warning people to turn their cell phone ringers off, but these reminders are often ignored, leaving the victims to long for a day long past, when telephones only rang at home or at work.

Finally, consider some of the social ramifications of widespread cell phone use.  Communication which involves face to face conversations can convey more information than those which are carried over a phone or through other electronic means.  Body language, facial expressions, and eye contact are all lost when using a phone.  It is much harder to measure this loss, but it must be taken into account when direct human contact is diminished. 


This paper has examined some of the consequences of the widespread use of cell phones.  One must be careful whenever adopting a new technology.  Serious questions must be asked about its overall use, risks, and long term social changes which are likely to occur if and when virtually everyone starts using it.  As this technology rapidly advances, even more questions arise about the validity of having so much connectedness and computing power constantly taking our attention.

New phones, such as Apple’s iPhoneTM, promise to deliver even more features to their users (at an even higher cost), and we must question whether or not we really need to have our mp3 collection, GPS, and the power of the Internet with us at all times and in all places, and what the long term and social ramifications might be.  Watching movies and television shows on a cell phone might sound advantageous at first, but what happens when this is done by many people and in inappropriate settings?  What is one supposed to do when the person standing next to him is watching commercials or pornography on his phone?

Who finally pays the price?  As we have seen, just about everyone pays the high price of cell phones, even those who do not even own one.





Marguerite Reardon, “Emerging markets fuel cell phone growth,” CNET, February 14, 2007.

Microwave oven entry on as of May, 2007.

Cellular frequencies entry on as of May, 2007.

Nic Fleming , “Mobile phone use 'linked to tumour',”, January 26, 2007

Donna Glassbrenner, “Driver Cell Phone Use in 2005 Overall Results,” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Website, December 2005.

CNN, “It's official: Distracted drivers are dangerous,” CNN Website, April 21, 2006.

Business & Legal Reports, “California Passes Cell Phone Law,” BNL Website, September 28, 2006.

Tom Spring, “Phone Bill Woes,” The Washington Post, February 23, 2007.

[9] Website for Cingular Wireless as of May, 2007.  [Note:  This web site no longer functions.  See for more information about Cingular.]

[10], “New Jersey Lawmakers May Ban Texting While Driving,” March 27, 2007.

Elisa Batista, “Sore Thumb? Talk More, Type Less,” website, May 25, 2001.

John Cook, “Prisoners of YouTube,” Radar Magazine, February 9, 2007.

“The Cost of Movie Piracy,” an analysis prepared by LEK for the Motion Picture Association, May, 2006.

Reuters News Service, “Cinemas use night goggles to nab pirates,” May 25, 2007.

Melissa Dahl, “High-tech cheating comes to high schools,” The Sacramento Bee, September 24, 2005.

Steve Heminger, Memo to SAFE Operations Committee, Metropolitan Transportation Commission website, July 1, 2005.

Daniel Barrick, “Charting the payphone's demise, one quarter at a time,” Columbia News Service, April 30, 2002.

Coulter Jones, “Pay phones disappearing,” The Times-Tribune website, August 6, 2006.

“Fact Sheet 2(b): Cell Phone Technology”, The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse website, August 2005.

Vic Walter and Krista Kjellman, “Can You Hear Me Now?” ABC News website, December 05, 2006.

Australian Associated Press, “Banned: Mobile calls while Bush in Sydney,” May 16, 2007.



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