Standardizing cell phone chargers


in Canada, Daily updates, Economics, Geek stuff, Rants


Forgetting my cell phone charger in Toronto has already resulted in a week of weak connectivity. It need not be so. While it must be a gold mine for cell phone shops and manufacturers, the absurd proliferation of charger types is clearly an anti-competitive practice.

A government keen to protect consumers and boost overall economic efficiency would do the following:

  1. Require that all cellular phones be rechargeable using a standard connector.
  2. Ideally, that connector should be mini-USB (second from the left), capable of transferring both power and data.
  3. Require that adapters be sold for all phones made in the past five years, and that the cost of the adapters equal just the cost of shipping and manufacture.

As long as any charger could be plugged into any phone and provide power, firms would be free to compete in designing and building chargers that connect to electrical outlets, car cigarette lighters, or whatever other source of power seems fitting.

The intervention in the market is justified for the same reason as with all standards: it produces societal welfare without adverse effects. It replaces self-serving confusion generated by private firms with an ordered approach that makes sense for everyone. It is not as though there is any major innovation which can occur with cell phone chargers. At root, they are just plastic-wrapped wires that run from a socket to a circuit board. Having fewer types – and making them go obsolete less frequently – would also reduce the usage of energy and materials in manufacturing, as well as the number of (potentially toxic) plastic trinkets populating landfills worldwide. A standard would allow people to share chargers, as well as permit buses and trains to have universal charging stations available.

Something similar could be done for laptop computers. Cell phones and laptops are both ubiquitous elements of modern life and commerce. Just think how many productive hours are needlessly lost because each manufacturer wants to ensure that last year’s charger cannot be sold to someone buying this year’s phone.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan April 30, 2008 at 11:24 am

This is all a bit utopian. Why would we expect the state to pass such laws which are obviously in the best interest of consumers and not corporations?

Milan April 30, 2008 at 11:29 am

States do pass laws like this: for instance, the ones that force big internet and cell phone providers to lease parts of their network to other smaller providers.

Virtually all of competition law follows this general template.

. April 30, 2008 at 11:32 am

Micro-USB to be phone-charger standard

David Meyer

Published: 20 Sep 2007 12:30 BST

The spaghetti-like nightmare that forms many users’ collection of phone chargers, headset connectors and data cables could be set to end after a major mobile industry forum agreed to standardise on one type of connector.

On Monday the Open Mobile Terminal Platform (OMTP) — a forum dominated by operators but including manufacturers such as Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, Sony Ericsson and LG — announced that its members had agreed on micro-USB as the future common connector.

Erin April 30, 2008 at 3:26 pm

what bothers me is when head phone jacks are not the same size. Seriously?! that needs to be standardized, like right now! The cell phone thing is a bit far-stretched…. although I found that the Jitterbug charger works on several other different phones. Its the most standard thing I have seen

Ashuri April 30, 2008 at 3:30 pm

Can you please crossreference this post with the multi-step advice for not losing/forgetting things. I believe “trust but check” was one of the more sagacious morsels.

Milan April 30, 2008 at 4:23 pm

How not to lose things
Thursday, January 31st, 2008

When leaving a hotel room or other room where you have been staying, cell phone chargers are absurdly easy to overlook.

Padraic April 30, 2008 at 4:47 pm

I rode a bus from Ottawa to Fort St John, BC, to start a new job in an incredibly isolated area only to realize I had left my laptop power source on the kitchen table. Luckily, a co-worker also had an HP laptop so we alternated.

Tristan April 30, 2008 at 5:03 pm

I don’t see why the state needs to protect us from our forgetfulness. Owning a cellphone remains a free choice, meaning you can choose to own one or not and if you own one, you can choose to what extent you become reliant on it.

There is no good reason to give up control over the way in which we become cyborgs.

Milan April 30, 2008 at 5:10 pm


Correcting market failures is a well established role for the state – even when the industry where the failure exists is ‘optional.’

The state wouldn’t just be “protect[ing] us from our forgetfulness.” It would also be achieving the other benefits listed above – not least reducing the volume of black plastic dongles being tossed in the trash every year.

Standards are usually good for everyone. That is why they are generally within the mandate of nation-states to provide.

Emily May 1, 2008 at 2:22 am

I agree with Tristan in that it doesn’t seem to be a pressing issue that tax dollars and government energy should be spent on. We have enough tendrils of the state stretching through the minutiae of our lives; forcing cell phone companies to standardize seems like more of an act of convenience for the consumer, rather than a measure of protection for their rights.

The environmental effects are terrible, but not as terrible as some of the more indulgent, unmediated acts of pollution that corporations take part in. Say, chemical fertilizer use, or oil sands chemical treatment disposal.

Though, it would make life a damn lot easier.

. February 16, 2009 at 10:13 am

European Commission demands a single, standard phone charger
Posted by Cory Doctorow, February 15, 2009 9:59 PM

The European Commission is getting ready to force all mobile phone companies to use a single connector on their chargers, in order to eliminate the mountains of e-waste generated by switching chargers every time you switch phones. Transformer bricks with esoteric connectors are the most common form of electronic crap I see on street-vendors’ blankets around the world (at least a hundred of them yesterday on Brick Lane in London, and literally thousands and thousands of them in Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar), and given that they all put out nearly the same voltage and amperage, it really does seem like pure waste.

Milan February 16, 2009 at 10:16 am

If the European initiative linked above goes through, we may well see similar demands from other governments elsewhere.

Pushed to the wall, cell phone companies will be able to adopt a single charger for all of Europe. It will then become extremely difficult for them to justify the continued use of expensive proprietary chargers elsewhere.

. February 16, 2009 at 10:47 am

EU commissioner pushing for standard connector for all cellphones

While some companies like Connectland have already offered up their own solution to the problem of multiple cellphone connectors (seen at right), a European Union commissioner now seems to be taking the idea one step further, and is starting to push the notion of one standard cellphone connector to rule them all. According to Telcompaper, European Commissioner for Industry Günter Verheugen recently said in a German interview that he has had his patience tested after giving the cellphone industry several chances to develop a single cellphone connector, and he’s now not excluding “severe measures” to force them to reach a solution. His main concern, as you might have guessed, is the waste that results from folks needing a new charger for each new cellphone, although the cellphone industry obviously sees things a bit differently, with the EICTA’s Tony Graziano saying that Verheugen’s demand is “legally and technically impossible” due to differences in voltage and battery requirements within the European Union. In any event, it seems that some actual regulations are still quite a ways off from becoming a reality, and Verheugen still insists that he’d prefer to see the industry arrive at a standard voluntarily.

. February 17, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Universal charger for phones plan

The world’s biggest mobile phone makers and network operators have backed plans to create a universal phone recharger.

Most manufacturers now produce chargers which work only with their own devices.

The re-charger will consume 50% less stand-by energy than today’s cables, the GSM Association (GSMA), an umbrella group for the industry, said.

Firms to back the plan include Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, LG, T-Mobile, Orange, 3, AT&T and Vodafone.

The majority of new handsets will support the re-charger by 2012.

. October 26, 2009 at 11:09 am

Support for universal micro-USB phone chargers grows with ITU approval

The entire wireless industry has been congealing around micro-USB as a universal charging standard for a while now, and we’ve taken yet another important step toward completely ridding the world of bizarre proprietary connectors (you know what we’re talking about, Samsung) with ITU ratification this week. The UN-backed International Telecommunication Union isn’t just making the move to make our lives a little less hellish, though — it’s also a strategic environmental move on a couple fronts, since universal chargers mean consumers will be able to hold on to a single charger over the life of several phones and modern chargers are far more power efficient than models that are even just a couple years old.

. December 4, 2011 at 8:56 pm

New NDP bill will force universal chargers for all mobile phones sold in Canada

OTTAWA — A New Democrat MP has introduced a private member’s bill that would require universal chargers for all new cellphones sold in Canada, though an official from the wireless industry says such a move would be redundant because cellphone makers are already moving in that direction.

Glenn Thibeault, who represents the Ontario riding of Sudbury, said such legislation would help reduce the amount of electronic waste going into landfills and ease the financial burden on Canadians when they buy new devices.

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