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'Hi, it's me. Just letting everyone know I have a cell phone'

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


Awaiting takeoff aboard a recent Delta flight from San Francisco to Tampa, I witnessed the high-tech cultural equivalent of Olympic synchronized swimming. In unison, dozens of passengers in row after row found their seats, immediately slapped cellular phones to their ears and pretty much said the same thing.

"Hi, it's me. I'm at the airport. On the plane. Should arrive about on time."

When the plane touched down hours later, the on-board scene was repeated.

"Hi, it's me. Just landed at the airport."

Gee, I thought. If I get a cell phone, everybody will surely want to hear where I am all the time, too!

Now that more than 100-million Americans yak on cell phones, what have we learned?

1. No conversation is too trivial.

2. No place is too sacred or peaceful to interrupt with a call.

3. If God didn't want us to use a cell phone while driving, he'd have given us only one arm.

Given the trend line, the cell phone soon may surpass the fork and the TV remote as the instrument of choice most often in the human hand.

Credit the marketing geniuses at AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and a bazillion other wireless phone providers. Over the past decade, they thoroughly convinced us there is no time, no place and no reason not to get on a cell phone and start talking.

* * *

So why is there still a pesky cell phone backlash that just won't go away?

Despite numerous studies discrediting the incidence of brain cancer and cell phones, fears remain.

Despite lobbying by the cell phone industry, more and more state legislatures are considering measures to ban or restrict the use of cell phones by drivers.

Despite their addictive power, cell phones face pockets of growing resistance in such public locations as restaurants, schools, buses, trains and other spots where people congregate.

Looking ahead, the cell phone industry's pitch may get tougher. How will the industry keep feeding consumers' wireless love affair and the double-digit spread of cell phones?

Let's imagine three internal and confidential memos the cell phone industry might write to deal with these concerns:

* * *

*SUBJECT: CELL PHONE CANCER. The good news is we have study after study saying there is no direct link between cell phone use and brain cancer. We will continue to pay for medical studies that debunk the cancer "myth." Let's face it. Cell phones are fun, hip and handy. People want them. So as long as we can muddy any connection between cancer and cell phones, we are ready to rock and roll! Remember: Cigarette companies denied a link to cancer for decades and the tobacco industry is still rich, rich, rich!!!

* * *

*SUBJECT: DRIVING WHILE USING CELL PHONE. URGENT. As more and more people die from vehicle wrecks attributed to using a handheld cell phone, state legislatures increasingly demand bans or restrictions. This must not happen. Lobbying and political contributions can deter most legislative attempts. Be sure to blame careless drivers, but we must show finesse! Remember. Beer companies promote "Don't drink and drive" themes in ads to keep groups like MADD at bay but still sell tons of alcoholic beverages. And they are rich, rich rich!

* * *

*SUBJECT: GROWING BANS ON CELL PHONES IN PUBLIC PLACES. Restaurants, concert venues, libraries and some public transportation are starting to ban or limit cell phone use. We must defend ourselves. Strategy 1: Can we can wrap ourselves in the flag of free speech? Backup strategy: Should we offer our own rules of cell phone user etiquette (talk softer, appear apologetic)? We must kill notion that "cell phone-free area" is a new status symbol. Remember: Young consumers are our future bread and butter. Hook them on cell phones early, and we're golden. Get Britney Spears signed for product publicity!

* * *

On the cancer front, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute last month said the first national study of cancer risk among 400,000 mobile phone users concluded there was no evidence of a cancer link. The study was done by doctors at the Danish Cancer Society who monitored 420,000 cell phone subscribers in Denmark from 1982 to 1995.

That has not reassured consumers much. The cell phone business sells plenty of anti-radiation devices. Cell phones are ranked by the radiation levels they emit.

In January, the majority owner of the Baltimore Orioles jumped into the legal fight over cell phones and cancer. Peter G. Angelos filed as co-counsel in an $800-million lawsuit charging that a neurologist's brain tumor resulted from his regular use of cell phones.

Angelos brings two things to the struggle that so far have been lacking: deep pockets and celebrity. The result? Cancer anxiety will linger for years.

On the "don't drive and chat" front, no state has an outright ban on drivers using cell phones. But legislatures in 29 states proposed bills this year to restrict cell phone use while driving. (In Florida, drivers are not allowed to wear headsets that cover more than one ear.)

In Arkansas, for example, a bill restricting the use of handheld telephones by drivers was withdrawn Thursday. But its sponsor, Rep. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, is not giving up his crusade.

"This probably is the most intrusive device that God ever let us create," Hendren said in a committee hearing. In front of him on the table was a bumper sticker reading, "Hang up and drive."

In Marlboro, N.J., new street signs have appeared: "Use of handheld cell phones prohibited while driving."

In rich suburban Westchester County just north of New York City, county legislators say they want to send a message not only to drivers, but also to the state: Pass a statewide ban on handheld phones.

Critics say "hands-free" may beat "handheld" cell phones in cars, but any cell phone can distract drivers.

That does not slow the ambitions of the big auto companies. General Motors Corp. is teaming up with Fidelity Investments to let drivers check their portfolio and even trade stocks and mutual funds while they are behind the wheel.

Starting this spring, stock quotes and market information will be offered through the latest version of GM's OnStar in-car communications system, available on new GM cars and trucks. Trading and account features will roll out this summer.

Ford Motor Co. recently promised to deliver the Internet to its new vehicles.

If information bombardment is the new driving trend, why stop there? Put the driver behind the wheel in a hot tub, complete with VCR and a choice of premium cable TV channels.

In certain public locations, cell phones are losing a bit of their universal appeal.

In New York City, Aquagrill and Le Cirque 2000 are among the few restaurants that have resorted to printing notices at the bottom of their menus asking patrons to keep their phones quiet. San Francisco's Moose's Restaurant became a "cell phone-free" zone more than a year ago. At the Fairview Restaurant in Durham, N.C., the menu now states: "In respect of our fellow guests, we kindly request that you excuse yourself from the dining room when using your cellular phone."

Amtrak's Metroliner service between New York and Washington, D.C., last year tested whether customers would like to be shielded from the noise and chatter of cell phone users. The "quiet car" was a hit and Amtrak is expanding the program.

Last month, cell phones were banished from the floor of the Mississippi House of Representatives. And according to Britain's top-selling Sun tabloid, the queen has forbidden her servants from carrying cell phones because the constant ringing drives her crazy.

The queen is onto something. Do we all really have so much to say?

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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