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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY

Hold the Phone

Longer Range, Sharper Sound Are Pluses of Cordless Innovation

July 08, 1996|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cordless phones were supposed to let us lose the curly umbilical that kept us tied to whatever room the telephone was in.

But it wasn't long until the freedom to move from kitchen to dining room--maybe as far as the garage or front porch, or to the end of the driveway if we had a really fancy model--didn't seem like much freedom at all.

We wanted room to roam, but all we got was a longer leash. The only alternative has been a cellular, complete with quarter-a-minute bills for local calls--even when they're calling you.

Engineers at Rockwell International Corp.'s semiconductor division in Newport Beach took that frustration as a challenge, and after two years' work and a $15-million investment, the fruits of their efforts will be unveiled later this month when a new cordless phone hits retailers' shelves.

Made by Sanyo Fischer USA Corp. and marketed as a Sanyo product--but built around Rockwell's integrated chip set--the new phone uses the robust 900-megahertz frequency and a digital technology known as spread spectrum to offer transmission and reception at a range up to four times as great as anything currently available.

In a recent demonstration for industry analysts in Orange County, the Rockwell-equipped cordless handset worked loud and clear a full quarter of a mile from a base unit located inside one of the company's glass-and-steel research buildings.

"It means a mom can watch her kids outside, maybe walk 15 or 20 houses down the block to visit a neighbor, and still be able to get phone calls" without shouldering the high cost of a cellular phone, said Anne Wilke, cordless product line manager for Rockwell.

That kind of performance, says Rockwell Semiconductor President Dwight Decker, elevates the cordless to a new plane.

Rockwell isn't the only company racing to improve the 900-megahertz phones, which first appeared on retailers' shelves about two years ago. But it claims to be the first to have a product on the market, beating out competitors such as Northern California's Zilog Inc. and Cincinnati Microwave, which also produce the electronic innards of phones.

Decker's ambitious goal is to have his fast-growing company--one of the world's leading designers and producers of semiconductors for the telecommunications industry--supplying 80% to 90% of the cordless market within a very few years.

Competitors scoff, but analysts say this is not out of the question.

"They knocked out many of the world's modem manufacturers to take that market, and there's no inherent reason why they couldn't do the same in this market," said Wolfgang Demisch, high-technology analyst with BT Securities in New York.

The spread-spectrum technology, christened SST by telecommunications marketing gurus, has been around since the military developed it for security in World War II but has only recently been commercially viable.

It basically flattens the shape of the transmission wave to avoid interference from atmospheric noise, providing cleaner voice quality and more security against electronic eavesdropping than can be had with a non-SST phone, says Vijay Parikh, vice president and general manager of Rockwell's wireless division and head of the team of 30 engineers that developed the new cordless technology.

Voice quality, lack of interference and add-on features such as answering machines and speed dialing have so far been the chief selling points for the other SST makers: Japan's Uniden Corp. and Hong Kong-based VTech Holdings Ltd., which sell phones under their own names, and Cincinnati Microwave.

Because federal communications rules allow broadcast power of up to 1 watt in the 900 MHz band, other cordless makers could equal or even better Rockwell's range. They haven't done so thus far because operating at such high power cuts effective battery life to nil.

Rockwell's solution is a smart chip that enables the phone to automatically switch among three power levels: 1, 10 and 100 milliwatts. Switching occurs as the distance between the handset and base unit changes, so the phone only uses its highest power setting--equal to a tenth of a watt--at the extreme range.

Rockwell also claims that its chip sets, engineered to use far fewer components than other SST products, can significantly lower phone manufacturing costs. Wilke said Rockwell's chip set can cut production costs by $10 to $20 per unit, which could shave $40 from the retail price without cutting into manufacturers' gross margins.

Curt Vasterling, head telephone buyer for the Good Guys electronics stores, said some managers in the chain are reporting 900 MHz sales increases of 4% a month--that's 60% a year when compounded. He said he expects 900-MHz models to force less-powerful cordless phones off the shelves within a year or two.

According to Parikh, Rockwell also sees the $1-billion cordless market as an entry point into the largely uncharted territory of personal communications services--the new generation of mobile communications services that will soon provide a flexible alternative to traditional cellular phones.

PCS will make it possible to have phones that automatically switch modes, operating as a cordless close to home and a cellular on the road.

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