The new "Silverlink" portable phones from Motorola Corp. might be midgets -- weighing 6.6 ounces and no bigger than an eyeglass case -- but they are casting a giant shadow on the telecommunications industry.
The reason: Should the current field trials in Baltimore and Washington prove successful, the tiny phones could influence the direction of communications systems in the United States for decades to come.
"We think this is the first step toward true consumer use of wireless phones," said Albert Grimes, president of American Personal Communications, which is conducting the twin field trials in partnership with the Washington Post Co., publisher of the Washington Post.
Baltimore-based APC is using the phones, which are not commercially available, to test a new wireless phone system known as a "personal communications network," or PCN. APC is one of about 50 companies that has been granted experimental licenses by the Federal Communications Commission to test the new technology, which has yet to be approved for commercial deployment.
APC's experimental phone system works much like a cellular system, without the drawbacks of true cellular.
Where most cellular systems are based on analog technology, the APC network relies on state-of-the-art digital electronics. That translates into a superior quality of sound -- there are minimal hisses, crackles and static when compared to traditional cellular.
Digital also offers users a high degree of protection against unwanted listeners. Regular cellular can be picked up by a radio scanner.
Where cellular is designed for high-speed calling from the highway, the two local PCNs are set up to accommodate stationary calling from anywhere within the system. The upshot is that you can use phones like the Silverlink in a restaurant dining room, convention hall floor or shopping mall escalator.
PCNs are also more efficient from a user's standpoint. The Silverlink, for example, provides about 20 hours of talk-time from three "AA" batteries. A regular portable cellular phone, by comparison, needs recharging after 40 minutes of use.
Then there's the cost differential. Where cellular service can run $1 a minute or more, APC is charging rates of about 13 cents a minute. Like other PCN hopefuls, APC wants to appeal to non-business users who have traditionally eschewed cellular because of the costs.
At least that's the idea. There are no commercial PCN systems up and running in the United States, so the burden of proof remains on companies like APC to show that PCN works and that people want and need the service.
That's what APC is hoping to prove with its field trials that got under way last week in Baltimore at the Inner Harbor and in Washington along the busy K Street corridor.
Participants are paying $25 a month ($5 for the phone and a $20 subscription fee) plus 13 cents a minute for local calls. Presently the APC system permits only outbound calling, and long-distance calls must be charged to credit cards or home phones.
L But even with those limitations, early feedback is positive.
"The quality of the sound is phenomenal," said Phillip "Beau" Birch of Waldinger/Birch Inc., a Baltimore-based advertising and public relations firm. "I made a call right out in front of Phillips [seafood restaurant], and it worked great. It was really neat."
But PCN pioneers like APC still have a lot of obstacles to overcome before wide scale deployment of PCN systems becomes reality.
The technology must be approved by the FCC. The FCC is trying to assess the domestic market for PCN and is grappling with a litany of technical problems.
That could take a while. Some observers point out that it took the FCC more than 15 years to approve cellular for commercial deployment. They say that PCN technology could look outdated by the time it wends its way through the regulatory process.
David Siddall, chief of the FCC's frequency allocation branch, said he doesn't think that will happen.
He said more than 100 applicants were seeking experimental licenses, an indication of the interest and perceived marketability of PCN-type services.