Is the iPhone 4 Antenna Problem the FCC's Fault?

Apple has a simple response for customers who complain that the antennas on their new iPhone 4's are easily blocked by their hands: don't hold it that way.

Some first-adopters -- especially left-handed ones -- discovered that covering the sides, especially the left side, of their iPhone could effectively kill all reception to the device. Apple responded by saying "avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band." CNet's Jessica Dolcourt demonstrates the problem:

PC World reached out to antenna designer Spencer Webb, who blames the FCC and AT&T for the antenna problem in a blog post. The FCC limits the rate at which cell phones can emit energy absorbed by the body. That measurement is called the Specific Absorption Rate. (It's the same measurement retailers in San Francisco have to post next to phones they sell as the result of an ordinance passed this week.) Webb says the problem is the way the FCC measures the SAR:

You see, when the FCC tests are run, the head is required to be in the vicinity of the phone.  But, the hand is not!!  And the FCC's tests are not the only tests that must be passed by a candidate product.  AT&T has their own requirements for devices put on their network, and antenna efficiency is one of them.  I know because I have designed quad-band GSM antennas for the AT&T network.  The AT&T test similarly does not require the hand to be on the phone.

The FCC and AT&T may not take design into account, but Apple does, in extremely exacting ways. Leander Kahney detailed Jobs' obsessive management style in a 2008 Wired piece:

Jobs, by contrast, is a notorious micromanager. No product escapes Cupertino without meeting Jobs' exacting standards, which are said to cover such esoteric details as the number of screws on the bottom of a laptop and the curve of a monitor's corners. "He would scrutinize everything, down to the pixel level," says Cordell Ratzlaff, a former manager charged with creating the OS X interface.

It's hard to believe that someone who manages at the "pixel level" would fail to test his newest device in his own hands -- and fail to make sure his employees did the same. Apple sells design. The attraction of the iPhone and iPad are their accessible, intuitive interfaces, packaged in a sleek, stylish body. Unless the FCC dictates how phones should be designed, in the SAR testing process, why should we blame them? They took care of regulating the energy emission, Apple should have taken care of the design.

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Niraj Chokshi is a former staff editor at, where he wrote about technology. He is currently freelancing and can be reached through his personal website, More

Niraj previously reported on the business of the nation's largest law firms for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. He has also been published in The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times and The Age, in Melbourne, Australia. He's also a longtime programmer and sometimes website designer.

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