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The rising din of cell phones

Cell phones ringing at restaurants, performances and other inappropriate places. It's a problem that's likely to get worse as cell phone use increases. With a new user signing up for service every two seconds, more than 1.26-billion people around the world will have wireless phones by 2005, some experts predict.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 2001


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[Times photo illustration: James Borchuck]
As dramatized at Tangelo's Grill in St. Petersburg, cell phones are almost ubiquitous -- too much so, some would argue.
Motioning for Dr. Leroy McCloud to wait, the patient chatted on his cell phone for 15 minutes while sitting in the dental chair. Finally, the St. Petersburg dentist kicked him out of the office.

"I don't have tolerance for that," said McCloud, ticking off other examples of what he calls an "invasion of my peace":

Phones that rang at a Ramsey Lewis-Billy Taylor jazz concert in March. A woman at a restaurant who began yelling into her phone as McCloud and his wife tried to have a quiet dinner. People yakking on the phone while driving or at the movies.

"This is out of control," said McCloud, who has signs in his office asking people to turn off their phones. "What did we do before cell phones?"

Even though we're becoming a nation of cell phone fanatics -- more than 100-million people subscribe to wireless services in the United States -- a lot of us seem to share McCloud's irritation with those who don't know when to hit the "off" button.

President Bush admonished an aide last month after a ringing cell phone interrupted a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In India, the Parliament installed jamming devices to stop members from taking calls in the middle of debates. Hong Kong and Canadian officials are looking at easing restrictions on such jamming devices.

Those offended are beginning to make some noise of their own. Up to three-quarters of those responding to some polls think people should be evicted from theaters if their phones ring after warnings have been issued. At least three people have been jailed in Peoria, Ill., because their cell phones rang in courtrooms.

"No Phone" signs are popping up. Some restaurants are banning cell phones. Some businesses use "detectors" to zero in on cell phones that are switched on, then warn the offenders. Some people are just pleading for common courtesy to prevail.

Rob Tolley, area director for North Florida Young Life, was victimized by a ringing cell phone while giving a sermon at St. James United Methodist Church in Tampa Palms.

"Respect the people leading the meeting or church service," Tolley said. "How many of us are that important that we have to take the call in the middle of something someone has put a lot of time into?"

Some instances can be attributed to forgetfulness: Last year, the San Diego mayor's cell phone rang at a ceremony . . . as she was promoting cell phone courtesy.

Those are the people who rush to shut off the phone that rings in a quiet restaurant or during parents' night at school. Then there are the others who unhesitatingly begin a conversation in a booming voice or an equally disruptive stage whisper.

It's a problem that's likely to get worse as cell phone use increases, with a new user signing up for service every two seconds. Some experts predict that 1.26-billion people around the world will have wireless phones by 2005.

There are a few options for cell phone users who want to stay in touch, but softly.

Many phones come with a vibrator mode that lets the phone shake rather than ring when a call comes in, and some older phones can be outfitted with a vibrator accessory. Of course, the noiseless vibrator works only if the user remembers to switch it on.

Some companies are working on other technological solutions to this technology-driven problem:

BlueLinx, a North Carolina company, is developing software called Q-Zone that will, with a user's permission, automatically switch a phone to vibrate in a designated quiet zone.

Netline, an Israeli company, developed a cell phone jammer called C-Guard Cellular Firewall, though jamming signals is illegal in the United States and most other countries.

Zetron, a company in Redmond, Wash., makes devices that can detect the presence of a cell phone as far as 100 feet away if it is on. The detector sounds an alarm, broadcasts a voice message over speakers or sends a signal to nearby security guards.

Not everyone is willing to wait for such gadgetry. About 24 percent of restaurants surveyed by the National Restaurant Association last year have some kind of policy restricting cell phone use.

Even if most customers enthusiastically agree with such rules, a substantial minority may not: 42 percent of cell phone users in the same survey say they use them while eating lunch or dinner.

"We have an obligation to provide an atmosphere that is away from the humdrum of business and daily life, where people can enjoy their dinner," said Bill Forte, general manager of Bon Appetit restaurant in Dunedin. Forte and owner Peter Kreuziger posted signs about 18 months ago asking people either to put phones on vibrate or take calls in the lobby or outside.

"We nipped it in the bud before we felt it got out of hand," Forte said. Although other restaurants may be reluctant to impose such policies for fear of losing customers, Forte said he has heard few complaints and thinks business has increased.

Fewer than a dozen people have been upset by a similar policy that has been in effect since June at Ben's restaurant in Brandon, said Keri Crisler, a member of the family that runs it. Cell phone use "makes it hard on everybody, hard on the server, the customer, taking a longer time at the table."

Times restaurant critic Chris Sherman suggests more people may be getting sensitized to the issue. "I have noticed a growing and admirable trend in people standing outside a restaurant to make calls," he said.

But there also are the calls that come during movies, though some theaters have enough steel in the building to effectively block calls.

And at live performances, it's not just the audience that's annoyed when a ringing cell phone bleats out an electronic ditty. A phone beeped during singer Jubilant Sykes' concert in January at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. "If it's for me," he said, "I'm busy."

Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater offers patrons a service: Leave the cell phone or pager with the theater office and give your seat location. If you get a call during a performance, someone will come and get you. So far, spokesman Lex Poppens says, no one has taken advantage of it.

"We're in that mode where cell phones are still toys," Poppens said. "Everyone's getting one, and everyone wants to use it."

At many live performances, announcements are made asking people to turn off their phones and pagers, sometimes drawing applause from the audience.

Florida Orchestra general manager Jeff Woodruff describes the effect an interruption can have on the musical experience.

"There's mood, there's atmosphere, there's something going on in time," Woodruff said. "Suddenly you hear a phone ring. It spoils it for the conductor and performers and everyone else in the hall. Our society can be very inconsiderate."

Not everyone is a critic of cell phones or a guilt-ridden user of them.

In New Jersey, real estate agent Jorg Gobel politely sets his cell phone to vibrate when he's in a restaurant, and he steps outside to make calls. But when he leads training seminars for real estate agents, he insists that they keep their phones on.

"I strongly believe that cell phones belong in our business," said Gobel, the executive director of the Cape May County Association of Realtors. "Attendees in our seminars, their business is contact with their customers. How can they really cut off contact with their customers?"

Some critics think the cell phone problem ultimately will take care of itself as behavior patterns adjust to a new kind of etiquette.

"There's a bit of a cultural lag of what technology is giving us and how people are responding," said Bill Boggs, a critic on cable TV's Food Network who is writing a book, Manners in the Digital Age. "We're no longer in a cone of silence in a phone booth. We're everywhere talking."

- Times news researchers Kitty Bennett and Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which includes information from Times wires and files. Contact Dave Gussow at gussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

Recent coverage

'Hi, it's me. Just letting everyone know I have a cell phone' (March 4, 2001)

Related sites

Bluelinx's Q-Zone

Netline's C-Guard Cellular Firewall

Zetron's Cell Phone Detector

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