Beep! Beep! Pagers are catching on Nationwide, 53,000 sign up every day

July 19, 1993|By New York Times News Service

At the Countryside Mall in Clearwater, Fla., parents cruise the stores as their children nap or play games at the Jabbawokki child-care center. What happens if one child bites another, complains of a stomach ache or begins to sob inconsolably?

Scott Kaufman, who heads the center (yes, its name differs from the "Jabberwocky" of Lewis Carroll), can instantly dial the number of the hand-held pager that the parents are given as part of the child-care service. Hearing the beep, mom or dad knows to scurry back.

"Parents love the beepers," Mr. Kaufman said. "They're not out of touch."

Millions of other Americans have adopted paging technology for all sorts of uses beyond the popular stereotype of the beeper as a tool for doctors, plumbers and drug dealers. Nationwide, nearly 53,000 people a day are signing up for paging service, which can cost as little as $7 a month in fees. The devices start at less than $60.

Commonly known as a beeper, for the sound it makes when activated, the device is a simple radio receiver that in most instances is assigned its own telephone number. When the number is called from a telephone, the call goes to a special radio-transmitter network that sends out a signal to the designated pager. Typically, the signal displays the phone number of the person seeking the paging subscriber.

Among those who swear by their pagers is Victor Bishara, a real estate agent in Highland, Calif., near San Bernardino. Blind since infancy, Mr. Bishara has been able to work through Braille computer printouts, special software for drawing up real estate contracts -- and a pager programmed to alert him whenever a client leaves a voice-mail message on his office telephone.

In 1990, 9.9 million pagers were in service in the United States, according to Economic and Management Consultants International, a Washington firm that specializes in paging issues. By the end of this year, the number is expected to reach 19.2 million. And, the firm predicted, by 1997 the nation would probably have more than 33 million pagers in use.

The service will probably change soon, from a passive one-way device to a two-way, send-and-receive system that in many cases could serve as a lighter and cheaper alternative to desktop or portable telephones. Sophisticated beepers may soon be able to send faxes and remotely check for electronic messages on an office computer.

"This is a very exciting time for the paging industry," said Terry L. Scott, the president of Paging Network Inc., which is based in Plano, Texas, and is the largest paging concern in the country, with 2.6 million subscribers. "Pretty soon you'll have an answering machine and fax machine that fits in your pocket."

One reason for the beeper boom is that in a country where most college-educated adults have trouble programming their videocassette recorders, the pager is the ultimate user-friendly device.

Small but telling improvements have also helped build demand. Some units silently vibrate instead of emitting a head-turning beep in movie theaters and restaurants. And some models, not yet widely adopted, can function as little billboards that display not only phone numbers but also brief text messages or information services like stock quotations. These are more expensive, selling for at least $200.

Manufacturers including Motorola and NEC America make pagers as thin as credit cards, as well as see-through pagers in so-called fashion colors like Sizzling Yellow and Vibra Pink to attract younger consumers.

With $2.2 billion in revenue last year, the paging business is still dwarfed by the $8.8 billion in annual revenue for the cellular industry, even though in 1992 paging had 15.3 million subscribers and cellular had 11 million. The paging industry takes in less because it charges less. Its operating costs are much lower than those of the cellular industry, which also uses radio waves to distribute its signals.

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