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For O'Reily Media, I'm James Turner. Does this sound familiar to you?
Perhaps you've been listening to some music?
[Music with iPhone noise]
Or maybe you've been participating in a conference call.
[Conference call with iPhone noise]
If you own an iPhone, it's more likely than not that you've run into this obnoxious sound, at one point or another. Put your iPhone next to a clock radio or too close to a phone, and you may find yourself serenaded by the iPhone staccato symphony. You don't even have to have the radio turned on, just having it close to the speaker is good enough.
I've been on more than one conference call where someone has had to be asked to have their iPhone moved away from the speakerphone, because the iPhone was stuttering over everyone's speech.
To be fair, the iPhone isn't the first phone that's been reported to have interference issues. Polycom, the speakerphone manufacturer, has been working for years to make their products cell-phone-proof, according to Jeff Rodman, the CTO and co-founder.
Rodman: We've seen it, well heard it really, quite a bit with GSM and TDMA phones. The source of this is the phone's transmitter, and what it's doing is sending its digital data broken up into very brief packets. Even when it's live, it's only transmitting about 10% of the time. But it's about 200 times a second. So what we're hearing is not so much the data itself, but the envelope, the shape of the packets as they turn on and off. And because we hear the higher frequencies much more clearly and they can interfere more easily than that basic frequency, while we wouldn't hear a 200 cycle tone, that's pretty low, when you interrupt something at that rate, it's kind of like putting a card into a bicycle wheel, you turn it from a gentle waving into a buzz, and it's the edges of that buzz we're so sensitive to.
Jonathan L. Kramer, a former Motorola RF engineer who later went on to become an attorney, and is now the principal attorney at Kramer Telecomm Law Firm, PC, is no stranger to this type of interference either.
Turner: Hopefully during this call, you'll get to hear my iPhone, which is five feet from everything else, and will be doing the Morse Code thing through the entire interview.
Turner: Now, it's actually more of a dat-dat-dat
Turner: Yah, you've heard it.
Kramer: Of course.
Polycom's Rodman is no stranger either. He describes the experience of walking down a local K-Mart past a display of clock radios.
Rodman: I have a Nokia cell phone that's several years old, and if it's sending or receiving data, I can just hear that buzzing sound following me from one radio set to the next as I walk along.
Rodman believes that the iPhone may be getting singled out because it has such visibility in the marketplace right now.
Rodman: They have higher visibility just because it's the iPhone, they have more personality than just about any other wireless device right now. So if you have ten things that are interfering, and one of them's the iPhone, people are going to say "Wow, the iPhone's interfering!"
In addition, Jonathan Kramer says that the iPhone could not be sold if it didn't meet basic FCC regulations for the quality of its signal.
Kramer: All of the mobile phones, be they iPhones or Sanyos or any of the other vendors, Nokia, are required to meet the spectral purity tests of the FCC. And there are some basic regulations that the FCC says phones can't be, as we say in the transmission business, they can't be too dirty. And iPhones meet those standards, they've been certified by the FCC. But whether you're on the clean end of dirty or the dirty end of dirty, as long as you've met the FCC spec, that's what counts.
But Rodman also thinks that beyond just plain visibility, the iPhone also causes problems because there's so much high bandwidth data transfer occuring so regularly with an iPhone.
Rodman: It checks with some frequency with the wireless network to see what's coming in.
At the end of the day, however, Rodman believes that the problem may lie, not in your iPhone dear Brutus, but in your clock radio.
Rodman: There is confusion about what is responsible for this. Is it that there's one really bad model of cell phone out there that's causing the problems? Or is it that things are receiving it that shouldn't? I'm strongly of the believe that things are receiving it that shouldn't. Devices should be designed in a way that they're more resilient to stray transmitters that come along.
Engineer turned attorney Kramer explains that we can thank a specific FCC regulation for our buzzing, whinny clock radios.
Kramer: Consumer electronics, like your clock radio, your headset, the recording device you're on, all those receivers are manufactured under what's called Part 15 of the FCC rules. And Part 15 basically says, look, as a national policy, we want to encourage low-cost, relatively high-quality consumer electronics. And as a trade-off, under Part 15, it means that you as a buyer of a Part 15 device, in other words, your clock radio, in fact if you flip it over I guarantee you if the tag hasn't fallen off, there's something there that says "this device manufactured under Part 15", essentially it says that you have to accept any interference that comes into it. That's your trade-off, you get cheap consumer electronics, but you have to live with the interference that might come it.
Polycom's Rodman explains that in terms of RF interference, we may be living in a unique time in the history of consumer electronics.
Rodman: We're really in an interesting time, radio speaking, in that there hasn't been a time before, certainly in the last five years, maybe the last ten, when there was such an inordinate number of relatively high-powered personal transmitters just wandering loose in the world.
In addition, because signal strength will increase four times for a device placed twice as close to another, these phones have an optimal chance of causing interference with devices that they're placed close to.
Rodman: A cell-phone's peak power will be on the order of two or three watts, that's the most it can put out, and this is compared to a radio or TV station that puts out tens of thousands of watts, or even half a million watts, but the fact that you have so many people carrying these things, and they're putting them down, not half-miles from your hi-fi, where the radio station is, but they're putting it down a foot from the hi-fi. And it turns out if you look at the math behind how radio works, you find that the signal that the hi-fi is seeing is as strong from the cell-phone sitting a foot away as it is from a 50 kilowatt transmitter sitting a couple of blocks away.
So what's the solution to this buzzing problem? Although it's possible, with equipment you can buy at your local Radio Shack, to shield an individual device, it's probably impractical to do it for everything in your house, or everything in your world. But Rodman believes the long-term solution will come from manufacturers becoming more sensitive to RF rejection issues in their devices.
Rodman: I think there's a slow trend toward making devices more resilient to this, so that if there's a cell-phone near by, they won't turn it into a buzz, but I think that takes a while to happen. I would think someone like Consumer Reports, would grab ahold of this, and recognize "we need to start testing devices for this, start rating devices for this." Once the need was there, manufacturers would very quickly find solutions for it, because the solutions have been there, like I said earlier, for fifty years.
Reports of problems with iPhones are anecdotal, but not hard to find. Robin Preston of Coral Gables, Florida, wrote to say: Not only do I have issues with speakers (namely when I'm talking on the land-line phone in my office and the iPhone is doing a push for info or someone is calling) but my bluetooth mouse goes absolutely bonkers if my phone is between the mouse and the receiver that is connected to the computer. It is quite funny to watch actually because the mouse icon jumps around all over the screen
The problem has led some users to go to extreme measures. Dave Greenbaum wrote to say: It absolutely positively drives me insane. I work frequently at my computer and talk on the phone but now use my landline more because of the buzz problems. More importantly, I work as an onsite computer repair technician. Once a day a customer will think there is something wrong with their computer because of the buzz. My solution, which really helps, is to use a metal anti-static bag by my desk to put the phone in. Calls and text still come in, but it removes the idle buzz. I still can't talk on the phone and work on the computer at the same time though.
The FCC would not comment on the record for this piece, and Apple Computer did not return numerous phone calls requesting an interview for comment. If you absolutely have to have an iPhone, or another noisy GSM cell phone, I'll leave you with this piece of advice from Jonathan Kramer.
Kramer: Buy extremely expensive, extremely well-made devices, that may be made under Part 15, but actually do reject outside world signals.
For O'Reilly Media, this has been James Turner.