Bell Atlantic Mobile Systems and four other companies plan to band together to look for ways to standardize such things as billing, advertising and network performance for their cellular customers.
The five companies -- Bell Atlantic Mobile, Ameritech Mobile Communications, Contel Cellular Inc., GTE Mobilnet and NYNEX Mobile Communications -- agreed to develop a joint strategy for approaching the market that could lead to a national standard for wireless services.
"This opens up a lot of futuristic doors for us," said Janet Henderson, a spokeswoman for GTE in Atlanta. "And it's going to give our customers a lot more room to roam."
The size of the service area covered by the Bell Atlantic coalition, which includes markets with 120 million people, makes it one of the largest cooperative efforts of its kind.
Southwestern Bell Corp., the parent company of Cellular One, agreed last year to form a similar arrangement with McCaw Cellular Communications to create a standard service from region to region.
"It is absolutely imperative for the industry to do that in order to provide a truly national service," said Herschel Shosteck, a consultant to the cellular industry in Silver Spring.
Cellular One and Bell Atlantic Mobile provide cellular service in the Baltimore-Washington market.
Mr. Shosteck said such standards could radically improve customer service and cut costs for the cellular companies. Corporate customers would find it easier to use mobile phones and track their bills under a standardized system, he said.
Technical and service standards vary greatly among cellular companies -- a sore point with customers who travel between service areas.
If the coalition is successful, most differences would be wiped out.
Once standards have been set, according to the coalition, customers driving from region to another could continue to use their car phones. Incoming calls would automatically follow a customer wherever he went.
Regional differences among cellular carriers make it difficult for customers to make seamless transitions from one service area to another.
Take roaming, for example, the industry term for leaving one service area and entering another. The most advanced roaming feature available today still requires a customer to punch in a two-digit code. Other, less advanced roaming functions require customers to electronically "register" their phones with the local cellular carrier. Standardization would eliminate the need for customers to do any of that.
"This is going to make your cellular phone easier to use," said Brian Wood, a Bell Atlantic spokesman.
He predicted that the companies will adopt standards and begin changing their systems this year.