Low-frequency cordless phones create privacy issues (Column)

Lawrence,KS (10-07-2004)

From Lawrence Journal-World
By Dave Toplikar

I was watching a report on CNN about the presidential race when I heard someone calling for me. As I walked downstairs, Julie's voice sounded upset.

"Dad. This phone does not work."

My teenage daughter was shaking the phone at me as I walked in.

"Maybe it just needs to be charged."

No, it had been sitting on its wall-mounted base, she said. And because it didn't work, she had missed an important call.

I felt a little guilty about not answering the phone a few minutes earlier. With a houseful of girls, it's usually not for me. And I don't like phone solicitors, although I wouldn't mind taking part in a political poll.

As I looked at the AT&T cordless, I realized it had probably reached its life expectancy. The LED display didn't work. I decided it might be time to see what else was out there to replace it.

Less traffic

Before I headed out to shop through the jungle of cordless phones, I wanted some advice from a phone expert.

None of my daughters were available. So I called Kansas University's Information and Telecommunication Technology Center. They hooked me up with Dan DePardo, a radio frequency research engineer.

"If I was going to get one, I would go with 5 gigahertz," DePardo told me.

He suggested buying the latest 5.8 GHz frequency models, mainly for privacy.

"You buy bottom-of-the-line 900 MHz, it's not too far-fetched that somebody down the street has got the same phone and can listen in to what you're saying," he said.

Conversations on the 5.8 GHz phones are more secure, thanks to a technology called Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS).

The signal randomly jumps around in the range of frequencies that the unit can handle, making it impossible for someone to follow a conversation on a police scanner.

"It would be like taking your TV channel and just flipping it randomly back and forth, generally at a high rate, much faster than you could manually do it," DePardo said.

Besides hopping frequencies, the phones reduce the signal and spread it over a wide spectrum of frequencies, "which also is very difficult to eavesdrop on."

Avoiding microwaves

Another reason to get a 5.8 GHz cordless is there's less chance for interference from other appliances using that radio frequency.

For example, if you're in the middle of a phone call on a 2.4 GHz phone and one of your children is nuking a bagel in the microwave, you might get some static.

Using the 5.8 GHz phones, you're not going to hear the microwave oven interference or any clicking interference from nearby cell phone towers, DePardo said.

Cordless phones using the 2.4 GHz bands also can get interference from 802.11g Wi-Fi devices that connect computers wirelessly to each other and to networks through radio frequencies.

He said 5.8 GHz phones wouldn't be affected by the 802.11g Wi-Fi devices. But they would be affected by the 802.11a devices, which aren't as widespread.

Features vary

DePardo says he likes the Sony phones, himself. But there are many 5.8 GHz phones on the market, including some by Panasonic, Vtech, AT&T, General Electric, Audex, Uniden and Olympia.

Prices for 5.8 GHz phones vary, depending on the features, from around $55 to $260. Some are expandable up to eight handsets that operate off one wall phone jack.

Two new 5.8 GHz cordless phones introduced by Motorola are expected to hit the stores this month.

Motorola's 5.8 GHz MD500 series cordless phone has a six-hour battery, six days of standby time, a digital answering system, answering machine access from a remote telephone and from the handset, caller ID and three ring tones among its features.

Motorola's MD700 series is a step up. It has a digital answering machine with message forwarding, answering machine access from the handset and a remote telephone, custom ring based on an internal phonebook, a handset-to-handset intercom and room monitor, phone company voice mail waiting indicator, and a battery meter with audible and visual low-battery alert.

The MD700 also has "polyphonic" ringtones and enhanced lighting effects, according to Motorola.

Waiting for Gallup

I was watching a CNN report on the presidential debates when the kitchen phone rang.

After the second ring, I picked it up, figuring it probably wasn't for me.

But I was surprised. It was for me. They were working on a poll.

I heard my wife pick up the line as the pollster was quickly explaining he wanted to ask me some questions about the Bush-Kerry race.

"No, now is not a good time. Thank you," she said, hanging up without realizing I wanted to take the call.

"--No, wait..." I said on the other line, surprised.

But I was too late. The pollster had moved on.

I should be ready with a new cordless soon -- if they call back.

For more information, contact ITTC.

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