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Wiring the World / THE NEW AGE OF GLOBAL TELECOMMUNICATIONS : Coming Soon: Tie-Clip Phones, 1,000-Channel TV

July 26, 1994|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BALTIMORE — A cloud as big as Montana coasts drowsily over the right-field bleachers as you watch a relief pitcher amble in from the bullpen. It seems like a good time to check in at the office.

Balancing a laptop computer on your knees, you dial in on your cellular phone, log onto the computer network and check your E-mail messages. You read the latest news from the Associated Press, check some stock prices, get your phone messages and troll the Internet before you sign off. Just in time. The new pitcher has warmed up and the hitter steps in. Put down the laptop and pick up your score card.

This isn't the future--it happened at Orioles Park in Baltimore last month. And a few years from now, two-handed juggling of a cellular phone hooked to a laptop computer will seem crude.

The world is poised at the brink of a telecommunications revolution, and change will come with the magnitude of the invention of the automobile, the electric light and the printing press. Or, as Pacific Telesis Chairman Phil Quigley says, "It's going to be kaboom ."

* Millions of Americans will carry pocket-sized "personal communicators" that will combine the capabilities of computers and telephones in one mobile gadget. The communicators will become fax machines, calendars, address books and sketch pads with the insertion of function modules the size of a credit card.

* A large percentage of people will have a personal telephone number that they can be called at wherever they travel in the world.

* At home, the wireless personal communicator will automatically connect with the wired communications system that effectively merges the telephone, television and computer into one instrument.

* Computers will speak and understand English, handling by voice many of the commands that today must be typed.

* Pocket phones may even include components called "personal digital assistants," tiny computers that make calls, take and deliver messages and do many tasks that secretaries now do. They will perform wherever you are, even in a moving car.

* Two-way videophones may be as common as speaker phones, or even cordless handsets, are now.

* Some people may prefer "wearable technology," telephones as small as tie clips or earrings that are more convenient and less obtrusive than cellular phones.

And it won't be only the elite that can take advantage of all this technology--"yuppie toys," as one phone company executive has dubbed them.

In nine years, projects a study by the Personal Communications Industry Assn., more than 52 million Americans will have cellular phones and 31 million will have phones using a new digital wireless technology called personal communications services, or PCS. And 65 million people will have pagers or messaging services.

The social implications are enormous.

"We may begin to see spatial organizations of human settlement quite unlike the classical city; threats to freedom of speech and of the press; erosion of the sovereign state, and a fracturing of society's cohesion," said the late Ithiel de Sola Pool, a telecommunications visionary.

Others believe the revolution will empower people to take more control of their lives, be less passive and overcome for the first time in human history limits of mobility, sense perception and the difficulties of the human-machine interface.

Which way will it go?

Will the gulf between rich and poor be widened by a new divide between the knows and the know-nots? Or will it be bridged by more information in the hands of everyone?

Will society become even more fragmented as people delve further into their specialized fields and social interaction changes from personal to electronic? Or will the global village become something more meaningful than watching televised images of famine in faraway lands?

Will conventional literacy shrivel, leaving those with traditional deductive skills behind those with a new kind of visual literacy? Or will we see a broader and brighter definition of intelligence?

Will the technology be driven by a few monopolies? Or spawn a new era of competition and entrepreneurship? The questions--and these are only a few--are fundamental.

Some shifts have already begun. Fifteen years ago, the fastest-growing segment of the American economy was in low-level service jobs, such as fast-food workers, a phenomenon that raised concerns about the economy's health. Today information-related jobs are setting the pace.

We are spending more time and money communicating and sifting information. In 1984, the average American household spent $1,000 a year on telecommunications. Today, adjusted for inflation, that expenditure has doubled.

If the numbers seem surprising, consider this: Cellular phones were introduced as a luxury in 1983. By 1993, 13 million Americans used them.

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