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Cars Sprout Antennas as Cellular Phones Ring Out Through the Southland

April 20, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Well, Kimberly Hubbard of Newport Beach did ask her husband to give her a ring for her birthday.

But a car phone?

Somehow that wasn't quite what she had in mind.

"I could never reach her at home," says Kimberly's husband, Scott. Between shuttling their four children to and from school and running household errands, she spends a good part of her day behind the wheel of her Mercedes-Benz station wagon.

"Now my big problem is keeping her off the phone with her girlfriends," he says.

But Kimberly didn't hide her disappointment when she saw her gift. "I said, 'No, no, no, this is not my birthday present.' So he took me to get the ring too."

"It's really worked out great," Kimberly says. "We bought a house and (the car phone) made going through escrow so much easier, because I had to take papers here and there. We went on vacation to San Francisco and called our friends (from the car) to get directions to their house."

Forget the stereotype: The guy in the business suit in the BMW isn't the only driver who's gone cellular these days. Now that car phones are available for as little as $500 and cellular dealers are becoming as common as yogurt shops and nail parlors, more and more cars are sprouting those squiggly little antennas.

(Drivers who want the status but don't need--or can't afford--the service can get a phony phone. Last year a company called Faux Systems in San Francisco started selling fake cellular sets, with inoperative antennas and plastic phone shells, for $9.95.)

"At first, cellular was so new that a lot of people were intimidated by it," says Angie Wolfer, sales manager for Cellular USA in Santa Ana. "But now that people are getting used to it, it's not so much a luxury item anymore."

Way back in the dawn of cellular (the technology was introduced in 1981 and became widely available here beginning in 1983), most customers were male business professionals, Wolfer says. "More women are buying phones now. And people who aren't white-collar; construction guys are putting them in their trucks."

Wolfer estimates that about a fourth of the car phones she now sells are being purchased primarily for personal, not business, purposes.

Although statistical breakdowns are not available specifically for Orange County, the greater Los Angeles area has the highest number of car phones in the nation, according to Linda Leavitt, a spokeswoman for LA Cellular, one of two companies that provide cellular service here. The other is Irvine-based PacTel Cellular.

California has 225,000 cellular subscribers, which account for a fifth of the national total. Leavitt says neither company will release exact figures on the number of subscribers in the Los Angeles area. "It has to be proprietary, because the competition is so hot."

But Mark Gallardo, owner of Communications 'r' Us, which does business in both Orange and Los Angeles counties, says about 7,000 new lines are being added every month in the Los Angeles area.

In 1981, Leavitt says, car phones cost about $3,000 and there were only 125,000 cellular subscribers in the United States. Last year that number rose to 2.1 million, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Assn. And those customers spent nearly $3.2 billion to make calls.

Car phones are nothing new, of course. But with the pre-cellular mobile telephone system, every car call had to go through an operator, and the connections were often less than ideal.

Like the old system, cellular uses radio waves, which are relayed by a grid of antennas, each covering a small geographic area called a cell. The cell antennas relay a call from a car unit to a mobile telephone switching office, which automatically routes the call. As you travel from one cell to another, your call is automatically switched to the next antenna.

Some dealers are affiliated with both PacTel Cellular and LA Cellular; others represent only one. Rates for both companies are identical, being regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, according to Wolfer.

Because charges are based on air time, cellular phone users are billed for both incoming and outgoing calls. "There are three plans," Wolfer says. "The one that's mostly for business users is $45 a month for the basic service, then 45 cents a minute during peak hours, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 27 cents a minute evenings and weekends.

"For people who don't need to make many calls during business hours, there's a plan that costs $25 a month, plus 90 cents a minute during peak hours and 20 cents the rest of the time. Or for callers who use the phone more than 15 minutes a day, there's the premium plan that costs $239 a month for 550 minutes of air time. The premium plan also includes call forwarding, call waiting and conference calling."

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