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Cell Phones May Become Disposable in Future

The cell phone has revolutionized the telecommunications industry. Now it is time to revolutionize the cell phone. What is next? The next generation includes disposable phones and cell phones that could double as a credit card.

Engineer Randi Altschul says the idea of a disposable phone probably came from her background as a toy inventor and also her frustration with a cell phone that was not working properly. She wanted to toss it out her car window. And, she says, that got her thinking.

"Basically I wanted to make a phone like a toy and make it inexpensive enough to throw it away," he said.

The result was what she calls a phone-card phone, which looks like a small cell phone but is only the thickness of three credit cards melded together with a small headset attached for speaking.

Each phone has a limited number of air-time minutes. Once they are used up, the customer can just toss the phone into the trash.

"We are after the credit-challenged seniors, moms, kids who just want to throw it into the glove compartment [of the car] for emergencies or who do not want to be hassled with contracts or all the high-tech features that nobody ever uses," she said.

Howard Segermark directs the International Prepaid Communications Association of the wireless and phone card industry. He says the disposable phone is the future of the telecommunications market.

"As long as telecommunication continues to be cheaper, people will move to less expensive alternatives," he said. "That is one of the reasons why prepaid wireless has been successful in almost every country of the planet."

The Federal Communications Commission already has approved two U.S. companies for disposable phone distribution. One California-based firm plans to market more than one million during its first year of operation.

Telecommunications executive Segermark says the disposable phone is just one of many novelties to come. "'W' commerce or wireless commerce. It has been attempted in Europe and that is to use the cell phone as a debit card, literally," he said. "In Finland, you can put your phone up to a machine and it will debit your bank account via your cell phone and spit out a candy bar or a can of coke."

Shortly after last year's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the Attorney General voiced concerns that the anonymity of cell phones, especially disposable models, could obstruct the search for terrorists.

Mr. Segermark says calls made on disposable phones, like any other phone, can be traced through the logs kept by the communications company transmitting the calls.

Some potential consumers have worried about the impact of throwaway phones on the environment. Manufacturers say the flexible plastic models are recyclable and also reusable with refresher cards that can add minutes of talk time.