European consumers will soon have the convenience of a single charger for mobile phones produced by major manufacturers, thanks to new standards promoted by the European Commission. This agreement, involving 14 phone makers, will also benefit the environment by cutting waste.
With your batteries on the verge of dying, have you ever wandered the corridors of your office asking whether anyone owns a similar phone and has brought in their charger? Have you ever opened a drawer to reveal a confusing snake pit of tangle of wires of the family's various phone chargers, both current and previous?
Well, this can all become a thing of the past. New European standards for mobile phone chargers, published in December , have cleared the way for a common charger designed to work with data-enabled phones (i.e. those which have a data port and can be connected to a computer) from leading manufacturers. The charger should be available later this year.
The standards are the result of a specific initiative of the European Commission, which prompted producers of mobile phones to address an issue detrimental for both consumers and the environment.
"I am very happy that the European standardisation bodies have met our request to develop, within a short space of time, the technical standards necessary for a common mobile phone charger based on the work done by industry," said European Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani, responsible for Industry and Entrepreneurship.
"Now it is time for industry to show its commitment to sell mobile phones for the new charger. The common charger will make life easier for consumers, reduce waste and benefit businesses. It is a true win-win situation."
Until now, almost every mobile phone has come in a box with its own charger which is often incompatible with other brands and models. About 30 different types of charger are currently on the market. With 185 million new phones being sold in the EU each year, half of them as replacements, many households now have more chargers than phones. Perfectly good but useless chargers are gathering dust before being discarded.
In 2008, the European Commission asked phone manufacturers to agree on a specification for a common charger or else risk a solution being imposed by legislation. A memorandum of understanding was signed by 14 companies that, in total, make more than 90% of mobile phones sold in Europe. The phone makers then worked with European standardisation bodies to establish standards on interoperability and safety for a new charger using a micro-USB connector (see box).
As a result of the European Commission's intervention, consumers will not need to buy a new charger with every new phone. In addition, the common chargers will be made to an energy-efficient design and thus reduce energy consumption, whilst competition and economies of scale are expected to reduce the cost to the consumer. The first chargers should hit the market in the first half of this year and become commonplace by 2013.
It's a clear example of one of the ways the EU can help its citizens - not just through laws, but also by promoting at European-level a common-sense approach that benefits everyone.
One immediate impact will be on the reduction of waste. By one estimate Europeans are hoarding a stockpile of more than a billion useless chargers waiting to be thrown away. A single common charger will be able to charge all the phones in a household and will be compatible with new phones as they come on the market. A smaller number of chargers in circulation will mean fewer unwanted items arriving on the scrap heap.
Although the memorandum of understanding formally covers just the 27 EU member states, the European Commission is discussing the specification with other standardisation bodies and there is a good chance that Europe's common charger will be adopted worldwide.
In addition, the common charger can create a positive chain reaction as manufacturers of devices with similar power requirements, such as digital cameras and music players, are likely to adopt.
More power-hungry devices, such as laptop computers, have different power and safety requirements and will not be able to use the new charger. But consumers will be disappointed if the common-sense approach adopted by the mobile phone industry does not eventually extend also to other products.
Manufacturers have agreed to adopt the 'micro-USB' connector for the new common phone charger.
USB (universal serial bus) is a series of standards for data transmission between computers and connected devices. USB connections can also supply electrical power and it is this feature that is being exploited for the common charger.
The micro-USB is the smallest and most robust connector of the USB family with a design life of 10 000 insertion cycles. It was introduced in 2007 and has become common on digital cameras and other small devices.
Industry bodies started to recommend micro-USB as a connector for a 'universal charger' in 2009 but the full specification for the common charger only emerged after the European Commission stepped in to broker agreement on the necessary standards.
Two new European standards, published last December, specify how manufacturers should design chargers to work with all phones.
EN 62684, developed by the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardisation (CENELEC), ensures that the common charger is compatible with data-enabled mobile telephones of different brands.
EN 301489-34, developed by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), concerns safety risks and electromagnetic emissions and ensures that common chargers have sufficient immunity to external interference.
Although some mobile phone chargers already use the micro-USB connector, they may not yet conform to these standards. Only chargers designed to the new standards can be marketed as common chargers. Consumers should examine the packaging carefully to ensure they are buying a charger that meets the new standards.
'Mechanical, Electrical and Telecom Equipment' Unit, Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry