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Cellular Phones Ring Up New Fans : Demand Surges in North County

January 10, 1991|J. HOUSE

Cellular phones are becoming more than a status symbol for the well-to-do; they're becoming a work tool for many white-collar and blue-collar workers.

The number of people buying car phones is increasing faster in North County than in any other part of San Diego. By the end of 1990, about 80,000 people in San Diego County had phones in their cars and were buying air time from one of the two service providers in San Diego, U.S. West Cellular and PacTel. By the end of this year, the companies expect there will be 110,000 subscribers in the county.

Most of the new buyers work in small- or medium-sized businesses, said Andrew Salony, regional manager for U.S. West Cellular.

"Outside sales people are, probably, the biggest group on our system in North County, but people like plumbers, electricians, and plasterers are heavily represented too. Then come contractors and a large number of working women, especially those who run both a business and a home or family," Salony said.

Zenobia Beckett, one of six sales reps for Xerox Reproduction Services in San Diego, spends 90% to 95% of her day visiting clients in North County. She doesn't go directly to her office in Kearney Mesa in the morning.

Rather, she drives up Interstate 5 from Mira Mesa toward Del Mar, Encinitas, and Carlsbad. On the way, she calls ahead to confirm her first appointments. Then just before or just after one of these meetings, she stops and, via her car phone, contacts her office for messages.

Typically, a salesperson like Beckett has a cellular bill that comes to $200 to $250 a month.

Beckett's bills, though, have gone as high as $500. She admits the higher amounts are sometimes a little scary, but then adds, "Usually, the bigger the bill, the more I make in commissions."

Scott Hoganson, PacTel vice president, said that in North County typical customers are real estate brokers and various artisans in the construction industry, including carpenters and locksmiths. "Nowadays, you find more phones in trucks and vans than in Jaguars and BMWs," he said.

Cellular phone technology is new, but the principle upon which it is based is old. As old as radio itself.

Car phones, in fact, are radios operating on frequencies regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. Cellular companies, like U.S. West Cellular and PacTel, even follow many of same regulations that AM and FM radio stations and VHF and UHF television stations follow.

In contrast to radio waves and TV waves, cellular waves go out with very little power, usually traveling no more than a mile or two. The broadcast areas, known as cells, typically have radii of about the same distance, a mile or two.

A cellular phone system has four parts: first, the radio-phones used by drivers; second, the broadcast areas or cells, each of them equipped with a tower for sending and receiving; third, the transit stations used for switching and routing; and fourth, the conventional phones used by callers on the other end.

At present, San Diego has approximately 65 cells, divided almost equally between U.S. West Cellular and PacTel. Both companies are adding new cells and other equipment as fast as they can. Currently, there are about 25 cells in North County.

A typical cell has 50 to 100 channels for callers in its area. But, at any time, if callers in a cell outnumber channels, some of their calls will not go through.

When callers go from one broadcast area into another, the system automatically switches their conversations from one channel to another. No pause or break is noticeable.

Fading reception and loss of calls are more serious problems. All cellular systems have blind spots, nicknamed dark holes by technicians. A number of different conditions can create the spots or holes. Sometimes, it is terrain; sometimes, it is the presence of other types of electromagnetic waves; and sometimes, it is climactic changes, such as fog banks and Santa Ana winds.

In North County, the places where reception is difficult or non-existent are well-known to callers and to service providers.

"The secondary road between La Costa and San Marcos for one," says Andy Salony of U.S. West Cellular. "For another, most of the winding roads in Rancho Santa Fe. Some of these problems we can fix; some of them, we can't. People with expensive homes, for example, don't want us putting up any of our transmitters and antennas on their property."

On the freeways and on most of the major highways in North County, such as I-5, Interstate 15, and Highway 78, reception is generally good. On all of the roads, though, a few problems exist. A blind spot in Sorrento Valley, for instance, is an annoyance for many people. "You can't make any calls through here," says Brian Ryken, a supervisor of maintenance for Texaco's service stations. "It doesn't matter whether you're on I-5 or Highway 805. There's too much static."

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