LBA asks the Old RF Curmudgeon how “being wired-in continuously” on hand held RF devices is affecting the (still) finite RF spectrum.

The Old RF CurmudgeonThe Curmudgeon believes that, without necessary and sufficient prior consideration, the US is starting down a technological path which may well prove to be unfortunate, festooned with many unforeseen consequences. One wishes that some rational consideration would have been given prior to starting the journey, but with most of today’s consumer technology being driven almost entirely by free-market enterprise, “whatever can be done…..will be done” as long as a buck can be made.

The Curmudgeon is normally a big proponent of the use of the electromagnetic spectrum (i.e., radio) to do tasks that can’t easily be accomplished in other ways or, in some instances, couldn’t be accomplished in any other way. But not in this present case. There are too many liabilities waiting to arise.

He is speaking here of the on-going, uncritical mass public adoption of one- and two-way consumer-portable wireless devices, of which the iPhone is probably the signature icon. This does NOT include such specialized items as wireless medical monitors, industrial bar-code readers, mobile GPS navigators, and RFID tags. These special purpose wireless devices, along with many other similar items, have practical virtues and carry far less risk than does the new class of consumer-targeted devices.

These radio-based portable (i.e., routinely-carried-on-the-consumer) devices are intended to accomplish many contemporary telecommunications functions that previously were the province of stationary systems. Some of these new acceptances, most notably cellular telephones, have advanced to the point such that the devices are already in nearly universal usage. Others are just appearing on the scene: wireless Internet access, portable television receivers, text-messengers.

Now the Curmudgeon is not a technological Luddite; he well understands the engineering behind, and owns and uses many different pieces of electronic communications systems (in the broadest sense). But The Curmudgeon is both philosophically and practically opposed to the mass consumption of the radio frequency spectrum by consumer-portable devices, and in some cases strongly opposed. Since nobody seems to want to present the case against them, he will herein present at least some of it.

1. Most importantly, the granting of “instant access directly to the person” through these devices — on what can easily become a continuous 7/24 basis—removes the possibility of maintaining an individual’s psychological “private space.” With these new devices in use there is no longer any “time out,” any chance to stop, to process information already received, to consider possibilities, to plan next-steps. The world becomes real-time, continuous, and without end. The distinction between “work time” and “leisure time” evaporates. Addictions (i.e., “can’t turn it off!”) begin, along with frustration as the individual begins to realize that the ceaseless incoming “data flood” can never be fully processed or mastered.

Most of the communications functions that are about to be adopted were handled previously by fixed, wired devices (i.e., corded telephones, desktop computers, in-home radio and television receivers) or, at most, in very limited ways by simple portable and mobile devices (car broadcast radios). One usually had to take very specific actions to use these, and if (s)he were away from the locations of the fixed devices, their use was deferred to a later time, almost always with very few negative consequences.

All this is about to vanish in less than an eye blink on the time scale of human evolution. The problem is…..the human brain evolves very slowly; it has no precedents or existing adaptations for the state of “being wired-in continuously.” The brain is probably is just now coming to grips with the previous generation of communications devices, and even for these there had been few earlier neural analogs when they were introduced. What is the brain to do with this massive new assault on a person’s private space? What unforeseen problems in human behavior lie ahead? Why weren’t these possibilities considered before we rushed ahead with even more technology “just because we can do it?”

2. The practical liability of the possession/use of these fully-portable devices is that they divert attention from a user’s local environment. If that environment happens to be a metropolitan street intersection, a busy highway, or even a farm tractor/combine, such diversion carries real risks. Significant injury to an individual can occur in just hundreds of milliseconds — sufficient time to avoid danger if one is attentive, or to suffer consequences if one is not.

Certainly not all portable devices are equally attention-diversive. Barcode readers, medical monitors, RFID readers carry almost no risk at all. One-way audio devices, such as broadcast radios, are probably only marginally risky. Slightly more risky would be some visual devices, such as mobile GPS receivers. Here, at least, the individual can choose his (occasional) viewing instants. More risky are the audio two-way devices, such as cell phones, that require little visual attention but do require mental participation in a conversation. At the highest risk level, in my opinion, are the two-way visual devices such as mobile television and text messaging, which foster both visual diversion and mental involvement. Some real thought should be given to consequences before these are made available to the general public.

3. Massive adoption of what are, in essence, portable broadband wireless digital stations inevitably requires massive use of the (still) finite RF spectrum. While new technologies generally lead to more efficient usage of each Hertz, there are “Tragedy of the Commons” limitations awaiting the complete consumption of the spectrum. What is to be done in the decades to come, as new (and perhaps compelling) wireless applications are developed, only to be shelved because of unavailability of usable spectrum? Should we not “save” today against tomorrow’s needs? Let’s use the RF spectrum for tasks that cannot be done any other way, and use our (nearly infinite bandwidth) wire line networks for those that can operate quite well without radio.

4. These portable wireless devices inevitably foster a feeling of “self-aggrandizement” on the part of their users, telling all that “I can make my presence, my skills, my expertise available anywhere, and at any time. I am thus an important person!” The Curmudgeon, however, believes differently. He is not a Public Safety officer, an emergency room physician, or a Supreme Court justice sitting on a convict’s appeal of a capital execution. There is nothing that he can do for another person *in real time* that carries any important consequences. Everything that he is able to do will not suffer from the delay of a few minutes or a few hours, or in some cases even a few days. There is almost always time to stop, to think, and to consider before action commences.

This is not to deny that there are times when real-time communications are absolutely required, and these portable devices can do that task well. But the Curmudgeon very much contends that the numbers of such occasions are not nearly as large as the number of instances when subscribers use their portable devices to make themselves feel self-important, for tasks that don’t even remotely require such real-time usage. Perhaps the difference between real need and self-aggrandizement usage amounts to orders of magnitude.

So the questions remain: What are the real costs, and the real consequences, of the mass adoption of these wireless, always-on-the-consumer communications devices? Is the Curmudgeon really the first to ask these questions?

What do you think?
“Let’s keep the universe safe for RF”

The Old RF Curmudgeon

About The Author

LBA Group, Inc. has 50 years of experience in providing RF asset solutions and risk management for industrial and telecommunications infrastructure assets. The group is comprised of LBA Technology, a leading manufacturer and integrator of radio frequency systems, lightning protection and EMC equipment for broadcast, industrial and government users worldwide; the professional consultancy Lawrence Behr Associates and LBA University, providing on-site and online professional training. The companies are based in Greenville, N.C., USA.

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