Untangling The Wireless World

There are more and more ways to stay in touch on the road. How do you sort them out?

After wearing a beeper on his belt for 32 years, Dr. Sanford A. Glazer took it off for good two months ago. Instead, the 60-year-old Maryland dentist and entrepreneur plugged himself into the global communications grid more tightly than ever by spending $150 for a digital cellular phone with a pager built into it. The setup from Sprint Spectrum keeps him constantly available to partners and potential customers as he puts in 60 hours a week trying to start up a medical-waste sterilization business. Says Glazer: "It's with me all the time. Sometimes I don't turn it off until after 10 at night."

Glazer and his four similarly equipped partners in the Antaeus Group of Hunt Valley, Md., are part of a generation of small-business people who are becoming more reliant than ever on wireless communications. Mobility started with the occasional pager, cellular phone, or two-way radio. But with stunning speed, options have broadened, prices have fallen, and expectations of constant connectivity have risen. In many circles, being out of the office--or even out of the state, or the country--is no longer considered a reason to be out of touch.

COST ISSUE. So wireless makes sense. The question is, which variety? The main categories are cellular phones, pagers, two-way dispatch radios, and data-only devices (table). But those categories are blurring. As an example, Paging Network Inc. (PageNet) of Plano, Tex., will soon use a newly auctioned slice of the airwaves to offer pagers that take voice messages instead of numeric or alphanumeric messages.

It's a lot to sort through, and misguided experimentation can be expensive. What's more, small operations generally lack the time or money to develop customized wireless systems such as Federal Express Corp.'s package-tracking service. "Smaller, privately held companies like ours tend to personalize the cost issue much more," says Timm Sweeney, a wireless customer who runs a six-person consultancy in Danbury, Conn.

Luckily, there's help. Off-the-shelf voice-and-data systems increasingly come bundled with features that make them usable right out of the box. Where that's not enough, wireless companies will usually refer customers to a "systems integrator" that can write software for their particular needs. For instance, LumberJack Inc. of Palm Harbor, Fla., has carved out a business serving nothing but lumberyards. A recent client: Buena Park Lumber and Hardware Co. of Orange County, Calif., which needed software to let its traveling salespeople check inventories on the store computer via a cellular call from their laptop computers.

For the likes of florists and plumbers with simple communications needs, inexpensive two-way radio systems installed in cars or trucks may suffice. A typical bill is just $20 a month per vehicle. But the voice quality is poor and there's no privacy on the airwaves. That has left an opening for wireless companies that introduced two-way radio based on higher-capacity, clearer, and more secure digital technology, says Stuart J. Lipoff of Arthur D. Little Inc., a Cambridge (Mass.) consulting firm.

DEADLINE DELUGE. One of them, Nextel Communications Inc. of McLean, Va., "cellularized" its systems by adding more antennas per city. Geotek Communications Inc. of Montvale, N.J., stuck with one antenna per city, but increased capacity with radio technology developed by the Israeli air force. Geotek aims at businesses with less than $10 million in annual sales. Besides voice dispatch, it plans to offer normal telephoning, text messages, data transmission, and vehicle-tracking for $50 to $65 a month per vehicle.

Geotek is operating so far in six East Coast cities. Philadelphia customer Tri-Lucy Couriers Inc. parlayed the security of the Geotek system--eavesdropping is nearly impossible--into a lucrative contract to deliver documents for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Says Tri-Lucy President Joseph R. Newton of his rivals for the Fed's business: "I moved to the head of the class. Thirteen folks were there with their pants down."

The rise of voice-and-data companies like Nextel and Geotek has added to the pressure on data-only networks from Motorola Inc.'s Ardis unit and RAM Mobile Data, a joint venture of RAM Broadcasting Corp. and BellSouth Corp. Still, Ardis and RAM have their loyalists. Physician Sales and Service Inc., in Jacksonville, Fla., used to get deluged with telephoned orders from its salespeople every day just before 11 a.m., the deadline for next-day delivery. Now that the salespeople have RAM terminals, they don't save up their orders until they can get to a phone. So the orders dribble in as they're booked, making life easier at the warehouse.

If conversation is important--especially conversation with people outside the company--the obvious choice is cellular phone service. Cellular operators are getting more savvy about addressing small-business needs. Last July, for example, San Francisco-based Airtouch Communications Inc. started offering discounts to business customers with as few as five phones, down from 24 previously. A typical small-business plan might run $20 a month plus 35 cents a minute, averaging on- and off-peak.

Picked a cellular carrier? Now pick a cellular-data option. Just hooking up the laptop to a cell phone is simple enough, but doesn't work too well unless modems on both ends are customized for wireless transmission. AT&T Wireless Services, for one, is helping in that regard. It has begun installing banks of modems containing software to correct errors that creep into data sent via cellular. Instead of dialing the recipient directly, an AT&T customer routes the call through the modem bank, which cleans up the errors and then forwards the call over the wired network.

For frequent, short messages, a better option might be Cellular Digital Packet Data, which chops data into packets and "mails" them over the cellular airwaves. Packets can be sent instantly since there's no need to set up a circuit. CDPD modems still cost up to $1,000, but they're falling in price. And after a slow rollout, CDPD is now in 40 of the 50 biggest U.S. cities. "We have legitimately been knocked for the extent to which we said this would happen quickly. But once we really got started, it is going incredibly rapidly," says Kendra A. VanderMeulen, general manager of AT&T's Wireless Data Division.

NO QUALMS. Sandy Glazer, the Maryland dentist, provides a glimpse of the future as an early customer of Sprint Spectrum, the nation's first "personal communications service." The all-digital service began last November in the Baltimore-Washington area and is now in Hawaii as well. Traditionally, cellular phone users have been reluctant to give out their numbers because they must pay for incoming calls. Glazer has no such qualms, because the phone numbers of most callers are displayed on his phone before he answers. He can shunt them to voice mail if he wants. And if he answers, the call is free if it lasts under a minute. Says Glazer: "You can probably get 95% of your business done in less than a minute."

Of course, not everyone is quite so hyperkinetic. Janice Obuchowski, the former Assistant Commerce Secretary who runs a Washington consultancy called Freedom Technologies Inc., is also a Sprint Spectrum customer. But she sometimes regrets letting so many people have her number. "They've got a thought a minute," she says. "Sometimes your instinct is to tell them, `Just sleep on it, reflect on it, and call me in the morning."' Wouldn't that be nice? But she knows that small businesses like hers can hardly afford to step out of the information flow--even for a minute.

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