Calif. company's technology gets backing in Md.

April 22, 1992|By Leslie Cauley | Leslie Cauley,Staff Writer

A small California company got a shot in the arm last week when American Personal Communications, a Baltimore-based cellular company, publicly endorsed its digital technology for use with personal communication networks.

Personal communication networks, known as PCNs in industry parlance, represent the next generation of wireless communication. They are indoor cellular systems that allow customers to make calls from virtually anywhere, from an elevator to an executive washroom. Handsets for the experimental systems are no bigger than a pack of cigarettes and cost less than $100.

American Personal Communications, which developed the nation's first cellular system in the early 1980s, is testing PCNs in Baltimore and Washington. If, as expected, federal regulators grant commercial licenses to PCN operators, the company plans to start offering PCN services commercially in 1993.

Those services will use equipment developed by Qualcomm Inc., a San Diego-based developer of wireless communications systems that bases its equipment on a technical standard that has yet to win favor with the cellular industry.

The endorsement from American Personal Communications is significant for Qualcomm, which wants its technical standard to be adopted by the industry, since standards adopted now will be used by manufacturers and providers of the next generation of cellular products and services, including PCNs.

Companies whose technical standards are embraced by the industry stand to reap a financial bonanza if the pundits are right and PCNs turn into a billion-dollar-a-year business. Some experts predict that PCNs will be a $60 billion-a-year business within 10 years.

Al Grimes, president of American Personal Communications, said his company plans to spend "several million dollars" for equipment developed by Qualcomm. The equipment will be installed in June in American Personal Communications' experimental systems in Baltimore and Washington.

The company's trials are being bankrolled by the Washington Post Co., publisher of the Washington Post. The same team developed the nation's first cellular system in the 1983. The two companies parted ways after making millions off the venture, which evolved into Cellular One, one of the county's largest operators of cellular systems.

American Personal Communications' public endorsement of the Qualcomm approach to personal communications is a first for Qualcomm, said Harvey White, that company's executive vice president. The endorsement couldn't have come at a better time, he said.

The Telecommunications Industry Association, the standard-setting body for the cellular industry, has endorsed a competing technical standard called time division multiple access (TDMA), which is not compatible with the Qualcomm technology, code division multiple access (CDMA). Both are digital technologies that break up transmissions -- voice and data -- so that they can be moved over wireless phone systems.

The association is looking for a second, alternative technology to adopt. Mr. White said American Personal Communications' endorsement might help Qualcomm's technical standard to become the No. 2 technology.

CDMA is generally acknowledged to have a greater capacity, which is important for high-use urban systems. But TDMA is ready for the commercial market now, and CDMA won't be ready until 1993.

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