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The Road to New Mobile Phone Technology : Communications: L.A. will be first to get the next generation of cellular service, but it won't come without glitches.


After years of America's worst cellular phone service, relief for Southern California may be at hand.

Well, sort of. Metropolitan Los Angeles is about to become the first place in America to get the next generation of wireless phone service--one that boosters claim will ease congestion, vastly expand capacity and open the door to the technological personal-information wizardry of tomorrow.

But before you rush out to sign up, beware. None of the mobile phones already in use will work with the new technology, and using one of the new phones won't be much cheaper, at least initially.

Nor will the changes obliterate signal-blocking hills and high-rises. Perhaps worst of all, some of the improvement will come at the expense of the existing system, a section of which is being cannibalized to make way for one of two new services.

Still, with roughly 800,000 cellular subscribers from San Luis Obispo to the Mexican border, the nation's biggest cellular market is likely to prove a crucial testing ground for the theory that wireless pocket phones are destined to follow VCRs, microwave ovens and CD players as the next "gotta-have" gadgets.

About the existing mobile phone system, one thing is certain: There's plenty of room for improvement.

Just ask Mark Flaisher, a special-events producer who spends up to $500 a month for car phone service so awful that he's developed his own mental map of Los Angeles. It's a map of what might be called air mines.

Flaisher knows where his cellular phone will go dead (on his own block in Santa Monica, for starters), where the system chokes on too many calls (nearly anywhere west of La Brea after 4 p.m.) and where buildings cause interference (such as at the intersection of Beverly Boulevard and Rossmore Avenue).

"After all these years and all the money I've spent, I think I deserve far better," he said.

Flaisher may soon get his wish. First, L.A. Cellular, one of the two companies that now divide the cellular world hereabouts, will install a digital technology that it says will triple the capacity of its system. The company says this will ease the congestion that now makes local airwaves as crowded as the freeways.

Unfortunately, your mobile phone won't work on the new system--you'll have to continue to use the existing one. Still, the new network should absorb a good deal of growth and eventually siphon off some old users.

Just as important, a third player is coming onto the field. Starting in August, Fleet Call Inc. will establish a competing wireless network all its own.

It too will use digital technology, but, unfortunately for users, phones that work on Fleet Call won't work on anything else (although users of one network will be able to call users of another). And none of the phones already in service will work on Fleet Call.

Although Southern California has embraced the first wave of cellular telephones with unparalleled enthusiasm, a similar response to the developments ahead is by no means assured. At least initially, switching to either new service will require up to $1,200 worth of new equipment.

Furthermore, over time, subscribers may find themselves locked into a unique and competing technology, much the way VCR buyers once had to choose between beta and VHS. Those who made the wrong VCR choice came to regret it.

L.A. Cellular is likely to be the first to test consumer response when, in June, it turns on new digital technology capable of tripling the conversation-carrying capacity of its network. Initially, the new channels will be introduced in Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles, areas where the old analog network is often jammed to capacity.

Two months later, Fleet Call is scheduled to introduce a new wireless phone service that essentially duplicates the two existing cellular networks. This service, which uses a portion of the radio spectrum, is aimed primarily at businesses with mobile fleets.

But the service could also prove attractive to individuals. Phones used on the system will have a built-in pager capable of receiving text messages, and the Fleet airwaves should be relatively uncrowded for years to come.

All this should be good for consumers, but it could also mean a lot of confusion. When all is said and done, Los Angeles will be left with three incompatible mobile phone networks. You'll be able to call from one to another, but once you buy a phone, you won't be able to switch services without buying a new one.

"We're worried that the new services will further erode competition. With each wireless network operating systems that are incompatible with each other, it will be difficult and costly for consumers to switch among services," said Michael Shames, executive director of Utility Consumers Action Network, a consumer group in San Diego. "Customers will be trapped by the provider whose phone they own."

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