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Ringing Off the Hook

By Scott A. Resnick, Crimson Staff Writer

One in four Americans now has a cellular telephone--and college students both at Harvard and other schools are helping push that number even higher.

According to data released Wednesday by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association in Washington D.C., the number of people using wireless phones by June 30 swelled to 76.2 million--a figure which represents about 28 percent of the U.S. population.

Meanwhile, Harvard students are going wireless at a breakneck pace this year--making the "cell" the newest and most fashionable accessory on campus.

Signs of the trend are both audible and visible on any walk through the Yard.

The phones are also making less glamorous appearances in many of Harvard's most public venues, ringing during lectures and concerts and piercing the silence of libraries and exam rooms.

With this technological incursion, old rules have gone the way of rotary phones, forcing increasing numbers of cell users to learn the etiquette of a phone call on the shuttle--and one in class.

Is That Miss Manners Calling?

When that etiquette arrives, it won't be a moment too soon.

At a recent concert of the Harvard Glee Club, Associate Dean of the College David P. Illingworth '71 says he was stunned to hear a cell phone that rang more than six times during what he calls a "particularly soft part of the music."

"I was not pleased," says Illingworth, who does not have a cellular phone and has no plans to get one. "I think they're probably a great convenience, but they can be annoying at a public performance."

And as if that weren't bad enough, phones are ringing during class.

Assistant Professor of the Classics and of History Eric W. Robinson says he is accustomed to the sporadic interruption of his lectures in History 10a, "Western Societies, Politics and Cultures", and classes he has taught at other colleges, by a ringing cell phone.

Although he says it doesn't happen enough to warrant any sort of formal policy against phones, Robinson says he hopes students are wary of keeping their phones switched off during class.

"The phone rings, I roll my eyes, the students giggle and hopefully within five seconds the student switched the phone off," he says. "It's an annoyance, but hey, it's not a big deal."

But for the professor and teaching fellows of Chemistry 5, "Introduction to the Principles of Chemistry," a ringing phone during an exam was nuisance enough to make an announcement banning the phones during tests.

Jacob M. Janey, a teaching fellow for the course, says most of the ringing incidents were being attributed to one particular student.

"Everyone in the class knew who it was--the kind of kid with the slicked back hair...[who looked like] he needed a cell phone," Janey says. When a phone rang during a test, "everyone looked up and looked directly at that one student."

And the culprits know the ringing isn't cool. But it seems they have not developed a failsafe method for keeping them quiet.

Winthrop House resident Esther L. Healer '00 says she was mortified when, after forgetting to turn her phone off before class, it began to ring during a recent section.

Although she normally turns the ringer volume to very low before classes, she had it on full volume then, and was sitting next to the TF when the phone began ringing from inside her bag.

"I was like 'Oh, that's me--it will stop,'" she says with a bit of a chuckle. "I wasn't going to answer it."

Since then, Healer says she is more conscious about keeping the phone switched off during class, but says she thinks others shouldn't have to be bothered by the phones.

"People shouldn't be disturbed in classes by an idiot with a cell phone," she says. "I guess as an idiot with a cell phone I can say that."

Matt C. Ebbel '01, who bought his phone at the end of last year, says he normally keeps the phone on vibrator mode, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of having it ring while in class or in the libraray.

"If it rings when I'm in the library, I'll just take the call outside and talk there," he says.

Mark Aakhus, assistant professor of communication at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says shifting expectations about the appropriate use of the technology in public places is encouraging more people to go wireless.

"Students have always talked in class. They now have one more means for doing it, and they are testing the boundaries," Aakhus, who has done research in cellular phone culture, writes in an e-mail message. "I think we can expect stiff warnings about the use of electronic devices prior to and during lectures by professors, whether more lectures will crash as a result of cell phones remains to be seen."

Tools of the Trade

Cellular industry insiders explain that one reason for the mobile explosion is an increase in industry competition that is pushing prices down.

Once the toys of high-power lawyers and Hollywood moguls, cell phones are increasingly within the reach of normal people--even students.

Data from the cellular industry's trade association shows a downward trend in the average monthly bill of cell phone subscribers--down from about $80 per month in 1990 to about $40 per month now.

"Wireless phone subscription over the last especially three to four years has been much more democratic than it had been previously," says Jeffrey C. Nelson, spokesperson for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. "The social scientists are suggesting that $40 to $50 per month is psychologically a break point where the general public is much more likely to subscribe."

And college students have the most to gain as the industry looks to establish connections with a younger generation.

Many students with cell phones say flexible and cheap phone plans were hard to pass up.

Ebbel says he originally signed up for his cellular plan with Omnipoint because of its 10 cents-per-minute plan, which offered a significant savings over daytime phone rates available through the Harvard Student Telephone Office.

Rather than pay about 30 cents per minute during the day with Harvard's normal phone rates, Ebbel signed up for a plan that at $50 per month gives him 500 minutes of calling time. The plan allows him to call anywhere in the country--even to his home state of California.

Healer too says, because she makes so many calls to New York, she would rather use a cell that charges local rates to call New York instead of calling from Winthrop.

But perhaps more than anything else, students say the convenience of cell phones makes them all the more worthwhile.

Ebbel, who is one of the founders of Collegebeans.com, an Internet company that allows users to personalize on-line resources, says having a cell phone allows him to stay connected at all times.

"To be a good business, people should be able to reach me from nine to five," he says, adding that having the cell phone allows him to skirt Harvard regulations that prohibit the use of College phone lines for business purposes.

For Healer, who says she spends a lot of time in the car driving to and from her job teaching martial arts, having a cell phone is a matter of safety and convenience.

She says she often checks her voice mail on the phone while driving or walking between commitments.

"It's a really wonderful tool for multi-tasking," Healer says.

But for Edwina Tom '02, having a cell phone has been a convenient way to appease a somewhat overbearing mother.

Tom says she knew her mother would not allow her to go on a trip to New York City during intersession last year.

So she opted not to tell her mother--relying on the fact that she would be reachable just as easily in New York as in Boston with her cell phone.

She successfully fielded a call from her mother when she was at The Disney Store in Times Square. After quieting her friends and pretending all was normal, she successfully avoided suspicion.

"She had no clue I was in New York," Tom says. "It does have its little advantages."

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