Everyone knows about how awful the newest iPhone's antenna is. Basically you hold the thing in your left hand and you'll see your signal plummet to the point where you can't actually make a call. Now, I haven't had as bad an experience as others - in fact I've found the reception is quite a bit better than the original iPhone (iPhone classic?), iPhone 3G, or even the iPhone 3GS. Apple hasn't really talked up the fact that the phone intelligently picks the best cell tower for your call, rather than prioritizing the cell tower with the strongest signal (techie and hard to market). But I digress, this is the problem nobody is talking about:

The antenna problem is a hardware problem. No software will "fix" the problem due to the fact that the metal antenna is located on the outside of the device. This has never been a problem because nobody has ever stuck the antenna on the OUTSIDE of the phone! Remember the Motorola Startac? It had a telescoping antenna that you could pull outside the device, and I bet if you cupped that thing in your hands, the same exact problem would occur. Still, I digress.

This is the biggest problem. When you hold the antenna directly, you immediately attenuate it's signal. That's a fact - the human body is a fantastic antenna attenuator, unfortunately. Now, when any phone does not have a good signal (think only one out of five bars), it sends more power to the antenna to boost the signal. Have you ever been stranded in the middle of nowhere and you're phone said "Emergency Calls Only" on the screen? What this means is if you need to call 911, the phone will power the antenna to the point where it is dangerous to have by your head, but able to connect to the police/fire department. Did you read that last part? Let me reiterate, it powers the antenna to the point where it is dangerous to hold by your head.

First lets see what Apple says in their iPhone User Guide:

The SAR limit applicable to iPhone set by the FCC is 1.6 watts per kilogram (W/kg). The SAR limit applicable to iPhone set by the Council of the European Union is 2.0 W/kg. Tests for SAR are conducted using standard operating positions (i.e., at the ear and worn on the body) specified by the FCC and the Council of the European Union, with iPhone transmitting at its highest certified power level in all tested frequency bands. Although SAR is determined at the highest certified power level, the actual SAR level of iPhone while in operation can be well below the maximum value because iPhone adjusts its cellular transmitting power based in part on proximity to the wireless network.

The iPhone 4 has poor signal, nobody can deny that. Now, if the iPhone operates in the same way as pretty much every other phone on the market, the lack of proper signal could actually be really dangerous to people. Yes, the FCC mandates that phones do not exceed a certain level of radiation (1.6W/kg) as it states above, and the iPhone 4 did pass this requirement in order to be available on the market. This maximum radiation level (SAR level) is not for continued use, rather, only for times when the device needs to power the antenna to its highest level for emergency calls. What worries me is that if the iPhone is constantly adding power to the antenna, the SAR level is closer to the maximum, which is not safe to have near your body over a long period of time. The barrage of tests that have occurred since the release of the iPhone 4 have only been testing signal strength with a focus on dropped calls, not SAR level. I'd like to see these test done and I think I'm going to use my bluetooth headset a lot more often (Go buy a Motorola one, please).

Here is an explanation by an electrical engineer I worked with at Motorola:

The RF circuitry basically transmits at a power level based on the communication it has with the cell tower. The RF amplifier has a power table that is dynamic. So if the signal coming from the cell tower becomes weak, the amplifier emits more power so that it could obtain a signal. The radiation, like you said, is increased as the power is amplified. The iPhone 4G's issue is the degradation of the antenna due to poor human effect antenna design. That is why they are suggesting the bumpers so that there is a buffer that is non conductive and gives the RF energy an area to flow outside of the human body.

We'll see what Apple announces today. I'm betting it's free bumpers so that the antenna doesn't get attenuated by the human body. I hate cases - why destroy the gorgeous design with a stupid plastic case? Still, I'll choose the POS case over liquifying my brains.