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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | Telecom Talk

A Personal Communications Fair Without Mobile Phones?

September 28, 1998|ELIZABETH DOUGLASS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORLANDO, Fla. — In the business world, few things can come between busy executives and their wireless phones. At a trade show packed with wireless industry companies and managers, it takes a hurricane.

At least, that's what AT&T Wireless customers found out when they tried to use their mobile phones while attending last week's Personal Communications Showcase '98 in Orlando, a four-day trade show sponsored by the Personal Communications Industry Assn.

In preparation for the arrival of the estimated 30,000 mobile-phone-addicted convention attendees, AT&T Wireless did what any carrier would do: It set up additional cell capacity with mobile units affectionately known as COWs (cells on wheels).

But when Hurricane Georges began to threaten south Florida, AT&T Wireless herded the COWs to Miami to help out with emergency services, if needed.

A good cause, to be sure, but it left convention-goers frustrated and furious over service gaps and endless busy signals. It also wasn't exactly the kind of show "buzz" the nationwide carrier was hoping for.

Some users were skeptical of the hurricane excuse, noting that AT&T Wireless' popular new One Rate plan has strained capacity in several areas--including New York, Texas and Florida.

"We've been taking a bit of a black eye, but the hurricane comes first," said Dan Hesse, president and CEO of AT&T Wireless Services. "We had to make a priority call."

But because PCS '98 is a show populated by mobile-phone maniacs, more than a few executives simply whipped open a phone from another carrier and continued on. Indeed, the convention often looked like a meeting of Secret Service agents, with every third person talking furtively into a small phone and precious few device-free waistbands in sight.

The event drew four Federal Communications Commission members, including Chairman William Kennard. Topics of discussion ranged from U.S. taxation of wireless service to worldwide inter-operability to the E-911 technology designed to give emergency agencies a way to pinpoint a cell phone caller's location.

On the convention floor, the focus was on ever-smaller phones, pagers and infrastructure equipment, along with all sorts of new bells and whistles touted by the show's 700 exhibitors.

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Several companies have begun tapping into the convergence of hand-held computers and mobile phones--a trend that may initially appeal only to gadget geeks but will probably gain wider acceptance among business travelers and others.

England-based Paragon Software introduced FoneSync, a software package that allows users of personal information managers by Microsoft (Outlook), Lotus (Organizer) or Symantec (ACT) to access up to 250 names and phone numbers from a digital wireless phone.

Qualcomm Inc. unveiled pdQ, an 8-ounce phone that includes all the functions of the popular Palm Pilot, with the addition of special browser and phone software that allows users to display names and immediately send e-mail or call the person.

Motorola showed off a phone even smaller than its StarTac--roughly the size of a Plentypak of chewing gum.

Siemens showcased a phone with color display--a first, according to the company.

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In the paging world, many companies continue to build on the simmering market for two-way communications, while Motorola unveiled a pager-size device that plays back messages like a standard answering machine. Research in Motion of Waterloo, Canada, made waves with its RIM interactive pager, a device that includes a small keyboard and the ability to instantly send and receive text, numeric or e-mail messages. The pager is being offered with service by BellSouth Wireless Data, which has widespread coverage nationwide.

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Amid all this high-tech talk, there was plenty of room for the standard convention schmaltz. At an event billed as a high-tech fashion show, women clad in revealing silver spandex suits and hair dyed bright yellow and other colors struck fashion-show poses with barely visible neon pagers, phones and the like. The male models, meanwhile, donned baggy pants and T-shirts.

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Competition in the mobile-phone market has hit record levels in Jacksonville, Fla., which recently became the first U.S. city to boast of seven wireless carriers with individual networks. Nationwide, the advent of new personal communications systems, or PCS, companies is fostering competition in markets once ruled by de facto duopolies. Now more than 80% of U.S. customers can choose from among at least three mobile phone providers, and more than half are served by at least four carriers, according to figures cited by John T. Nakahata, who announced last week that he would be stepping down as chief of staff to FCC Chairman Kennard on Oct. 31.

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Times staff writer Elizabeth Douglass can be reached via e-mail at elizabeth.douglass@latimes.com.

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