Dial `R' For Revolution

If you spend much of your working life on the road, you know how important cellular phones, pagers, and beepers are for keeping in touch with the rest of the world. The problem comes when you want to get your hands on that big report the boss issued yesterday or the dozens of messages left on your personal computer. Most cellular services are great when it comes to conversation but leave a lot to be desired for sending and receiving the written word.

Not for much longer, though. The wireless world is rapidly filling up with tongue-twisting acronyms that in the final analysis all mean the same thing: Technology is advancing to the point where the flawless transmission of data will no longer require a hard-wired phone or computer network. It's not quite there yet, but by next year, road warriors will be arguing over the relative merits of such new wireless data services as CDPD, SMR, and CDMA.

NO STATIC AT ALL. They're not as daunting as they sound. All these new services are different types of digital transmission technologies. That means they break down data into ones and zeros that can be sent via radio waves without static or interference. Subscribers can then pull down anything from brief e-mail messages and stock quotes to lengthy documents on their portable fax, laptop computer, mobile phone with a digital readout window, or one of the new personal digital assistants (PDAs) hitting the market.

For the moment, just two digital services are widely available that are designed for two-way data transmission. ARDIS, available in about 400 regions around the country, and RAM Mobile Data USA, in the 200 largest cities, both use a nationwide system of radio towers to send text only--neither can carry voice--to dedicated handheld computers. RAM has the faster transmission speed, while ARDIS has the stronger signal, giving it better building penetration. Both are used mainly by field technicians and sales representatives to send and receive customer data.

If you don't want such a specialized service, you could just send faxes and the like over existing analog cellular phone systems. But analog is subject to interference that causes transmission breaks and glitches. It's not such a problem for a voice call--you can just repeat the sentence. But interference can be death for critical documents.

The cellular phone industry wants to rectify this problem by building new digital networks. This is where the battling acronyms come in. Cellular operators are divided over two different digital standards, TDMA (for time division multiple access) and CDMA (code division multiple access). The technical differences probably aren't worth worrying about, only the end results. CDMA offers up to 20 times more capacity than conventional analog cellular systems and is meant to be more secure from eavesdropping. But the technology has yet to be thoroughly field-tested. TDMA, though it offers only a sevenfold increase in capacity over analog, is already up and running in several major markets. It has been embraced by the Cellular Telephone Industry Assn. along with McCaw Cellular and Southwestern Bell, the nation's two largest cellular operators.

PREGNANT PAUSES. Still, CDMA is being considered by several other large operators. AirTouch Communications, Pacific Telesis' cellular operation that was spun off earlier this year, is promising a 1995 rollout of a CDMA-based network. If all this either/or between the two standards is giving you a headache, you can at least be relieved to know that most handset manufacturers are coming out with phones that can seamlessly switch between the two.

Ultimately, though, digital cellular is really not the best medium for data. Its main purpose is to improve the quality of voice transmission; cellular is a slow and costly method for sending documents. Cellular subscribers who send a lot of data might be better off using to a service that employs yet another acronym, CDPD (cellular digital packet data). CDPD technology folds data into electronic envelopes that are sent at very high speeds during pauses in cellular-phone conversations. By adding it to an existing analog cellular system, operators can transmit data eight times faster without having to go to the trouble of building a whole new digital network.

McCaw's CDPD service, called AirData, is the first on the market and so far is only available within three cities: Dallas, Seattle, and Las Vegas. Nationwide availability is taking longer than expected because of technical glitches and disagreements on equipment standards, but McCaw is promising to have 105 cities on its network by yearend. Bell Atlantic also just started a CDPD service, AirBridge, in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Washington. GTE is planning to launch a third CDPD service, called Mobilenet, in June.

You could just forget about cellular altogether. Instead, consider SMR, or specialized mobile radio. This is a two-way radio dispatch service widely used for years by truck and taxi fleets. Now, three operators--Nextel, Dial Page, and CenCall--are converting their SMR networks to digital so they can deliver both voice and data to a single device. SMR systems have less radio spectrum to work with than cellular has, but the signal can roam 25 times farther, which means it's cheaper to build a national network. SMR operators say that also means their service will cost 10% to 15% less than cellular. Nextel Communications, the largest SMR operator, holds licenses covering 21 states, so it shouldn't have any problem offering nationwide roaming once its network is up.

POCKET OFFICE. But SMR has other drawbacks. Cellular telephones won't work with it, and the handsets that do are bulkier and more expensive. And so far, digital SMR service is available only in Los Angeles. Nextel says its full network will be in place in two years.

Wait a little longer, though, and you could switch to yet another acronym. PCS, for personal communications services, is expected to be all the rage in the wireless world in two to three years. The term is used to cover a wide range of wireless services including paging, cordless phones, and data transmissions. Like cellular, PCS will use radio waves, but the transmission towers will be lower-powered and closer together, so that the handsets can be smaller and service costs cheaper. Also, PCS will be digital right from the start. The only holdup at this point is the Federal Communications Commission, which has delayed the auction of 2,500 spectrum licenses for PCS once, to this fall at the earliest, and may again. So no one knows for sure when the technology will arrive. But almost every cellular operator plans to put in a bid, convinced as they are that PCS is the wireless service likely to attract the most consumers.

Wireless visionaries see PCS ushering in an era of one phone for both the home and the road. By the end of the decade, so the vision goes, upscale consumers won't step out of the house without a PCS-based PDA in their pocket that can take voice calls, display street maps, collect e-mail, and keep track of appointments and schedules. By then, with all the wireless data options available, you may never need to go to the office again.

WIRELESS DATA SERVICES: LOTS OF CHOICES COMING
      
      Type      Possible uses
      RADIO-BASED DATA NETWORK    Customer data
      Nationwide system of radio towers that   for field workers
      sends data only to handheld computers
      CELLULAR DIGITAL PACKET DATA    Instant credit-card
      Very fast data service being added   verifications, data-
      to existing cellular phone networks  base access
      SPECIALIZED MOBILE RADIO    Paging, e-mail
      Two-way radio voice-dispatching service
      used by taxis and trucks that is being
      converted to digital
      DIGITAL CELLULAR     Faxes, e-mail
      Conversion of existing analog cellular
      voice service to digital
      PERSONAL COMMUNICATIONS SERVICES   Stock quotes,
      Like digital cellular but lower-powered  e-mail
      
      Type      When available
      RADIO-BASED DATA NETWORK    Now from RAM Mobile
      Nationwide system of radio towers that   Data USA, ARDIS
      sends data only to handheld computers
      CELLULAR DIGITAL PACKET DATA    Slowly rolling out now, with
      Very fast data service being added   McCaw Cellular Communi-
      to existing cellular phone networks  cations in lead
      SPECIALIZED MOBILE RADIO    Nationwide network being
      Two-way radio voice-dispatching service  put in place over next two
      used by taxis and trucks that is being   years led by Nextel Com- converted to digital     munications
      DIGITAL CELLULAR     Rolling out now in many  Conversion of existing analog cellular   markets by most cellular
      voice service to digital   operators
      PERSONAL COMMUNICATIONS SERVICES   FCC to auction licenses
      Like digital cellular but lower-powered  later this year, service two
             to three years away
      DATA: BUSINESS WEEK