Watching what you say

Sylvia Porter

September 14, 1990|By Sylvia Porter

You've seen those curlicue antennas on the backs of automobiles: the sign of the first status symbol of the 1990s, the car phone.

As many as 31 million Americans expect to have cellular phones in their cars or briefcases by the middle of the decade. There already are more than 4 million in use, just six years after the technology was first introduced, according to Charles Many, president of NYNEX Mobile Communications Company.

You may have wondered how anyone can drive and talk on the telephone at the same time. And if you've driven behind someone yapping merrily away, you've discovered that many people can't.

But the car phones certainly have their uses. They can be more than convenient in the event your car breaks down in an isolated area. Sales and business people, who own more than two-thirds of the phones in use, say they save time and money. But mobile telephones are not regular phones.

In Canada, a local official used his car phone to arrange a tryst with a television reporter. Little did the politician or the reporter realize that every word was being tape- recorded. That was possible because cellular phones are really radios. The antenna sends or receives a radio signal via a nearby installation or "cell" that converts it to a normal telephone conversation. As you drive from place to place, the signal from your car is "handed off" to other similar installations. This allows the relatively weak transmitter in the car to be used for a conversation that could last on a trip almost all the way from Boston to Washington, D.C.

The problem, as the unhappy official and his television friend discovered, is that it is easy to obtain a list of the frequencies used by cellular telephone systems, and equally easy to tune in those frequencies on a special but fairly inexpensive scanner. And it is entirely legal to do so.

Because a cellular phone uses the public airwaves it is technically illegal to use profanity over a cellular phone. This is not a law that is extensively enforced, but use of such language could result in a fine.

Far more dangerous, as the Canadian pair found out, is the use of indiscreet language. A few affectionate words became a giant embarrassment when they were played on tape on television and radio stations a few days later.

A word to the wise: If you have a mobile or portable telephone, it is likely you may carry on some business discussions that deal with strategies, plans and the like. As businesses become more competitive, anything from a discussion of stock buys or sales, marketing plans, potential customers or even the amounts involved in bids, becomes information you don't want your competitors to hear. On a personal level, discussing when you won't be home or when the children will be home alone is not something you want to have broadcast. Corporate spies and just plain criminals make tremendous efforts to get this kind of information. With cellular phones, it's no trouble at all.

The point, then, should be clear: be careful what you say on the cellular phone.

The prices of mobile phones have dropped dramatically, making them affordable to a larger market. NYNEX Mobile Communications says you can buy a good quality cellular phone, complete with installation and antenna, for about $400. The company warns that the price of a cheaper model may not include critical extras (installation, antenna, and service), or the technical support may be questionable.

Before you buy, inquire of people who already own mobile phones. Check on the quality of reception and the responsiveness of local customer service.

After you have your mobile phone, remember that indiscreet conversations can doom your business deals and career, leave your home open to criminal invasion and result in a world of trouble. Just ask the now-former politician in Canada or his now-former television reporter friend.

1989 Los Angeles Times Syndicate Times Mirror Square Los Angeles, Calif. 90053

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