WASHINGTON — Seeking to get a jump on competitors in the emerging digital mobile phone market, AT&T Corp. on Wednesday announced a wireless telephone network that will provide digital paging, voicemail and caller ID phone service in 40 urban markets.
The service, which will be available in Ventura, Sacramento and Fresno but not in Los Angeles, requires just one phone to call, send and receive voicemail and to receive text and numeric messages from personal computers and text dispatch services. Caller ID allows users to see the number of the caller.
AT&T dubbed the new service AT&T Digital PCS, although it does not use precisely the same technology as the personal communications services (PCS) systems that are now gradually being rolled out regionally by Pacific Bell, Sprint Spectrum and a handful of other companies.
However, it is a significant improvement over existing analog cellular networks, offering not only integrated services but also greater voice clarity, longer phone battery life and increased calling capacity. It's one of a raft of emerging wireless services from a variety of companies that will mean new options and better prices for customers.
"With AT&T Digital PCS, we're affirming our leadership position by being the first to bring customers in cities across the country the advantages of the most advanced wireless technology," AT&T Chairman Robert E. Allen said.
Mark Lowenstein, a wireless industry analyst with the Yankee Group in Boston, said the new service "will produce big benefits for consumers in terms of innovative services, longer battery life for handsets and lower prices to talk. This is really the beginning of the digital wars."
AT&T's rivals complained that the use of PCS in the new product's name was no accident.
"AT&T's announcement is like vaporware: an attempt to cloud the issue of PCS and confuse the customer," said Terrence Valeski, vice president of marketing and business development for Pacific Bell, which will introduce PCS service in California on Nov. 1 in San Diego.
Valeski said that because digital PCS systems can cloak or encrypt messages, they provide superior security against eavesdropping and mobile phone fraud.
AT&T announced a basic service package of $24.99 a month, which is competitive with monthly cellular rates. It said additional charges for each minute of phone use will be set by local providers.
Customers will pay a flat rate in the United States of 60 cents per minute for "roaming" calls--those made from outside the customer's "home," or local, calling area. That's less than what most cellular firms charge.
Subscribers will also need a $150 digital handset to supplement their analog model.
Some models can be in a ready mode for as long as 60 hours before recharging is required--two to three times longer than traditional wireless phones, AT&T said.
The company said it will expand its digital wireless services to most other areas of the country next year when it unveils PCS services that use airwave frequencies purchased in the Federal Communications Commission's PCS auctions.
The phone giant will face fierce competition from Pacific Bell, AirTouch, Sprint and others, with consumers in major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles eventually having a choice of as many as six wireless carriers, compared with just two vendors for traditional cellular.