Bell Atlantic to offer digital cellular service

February 23, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

Bell Atlantic Mobile announced yesterday that it will begin offering digital cellular phone service in parts of the Baltimore-Washington area today, giving it a jump on rival Cellular One in the race to eliminate the static and increase the privacy of wireless calls.

That's if you listen to Bell Atlantic. If you listen to Cellular One, Bell Atlantic is making a big deal about rolling out digital technology in a small part of its region when Cellular One is the real leader in the field.

But if you ask Herschel Shosteck, both companies are blowing smoke. The Silver Spring-based cellular industry analyst insists it doesn't matter who's first because the technology still has more bugs than a cheap flophouse.

What is not in dispute is that the Baltimore-Washington area will become one of the first regions in the country to enjoy whatever benefits digital cellular technology offers over conventional analog service.

Analog signals transmit voice in the form of waves, while digital technology converts vocal information into a stream of 0s and 1s and decodes it on the other end. Theoretically, at least, digital technology should provide a clearer signal because the information would be transmitted in short bursts that would not be vulnerable to outside forces as a radio wave. It would also increase the capacity of cellular systems, letting more calls get through.

The Bell Atlantic announcement yesterday said that the company would immediately begin marketing digital cellular telephones through its retail outlets. Steve Fleischer, a Bell Atlantic Mobile spokesman in Bedminster, N.J., said the Motorola units would sell at prices of $600-$730 apiece -- more than three times the cost of comparable analog phones. The digital phones will also work with analog phones so that existing customers do not become "technology orphans," he said.

Mr. Fleischer said Bell Atlantic's digital service will initially be available in the high-traffic areas inside the Baltimore and Washington beltways and along the Interstate 95 corridor.

The Bell Atlantic announcement brought scorn from rival Cellular One. "The history of Bell Atlantic is that they pre-announce a lot of things," said Charles Hoffman, president of Cellular One/Washington-Baltimore. "We could say we have commercial digital service tomorrow, but for how many customers?"

Mr. Hoffman said yesterday that Cellular One, a unit of Southwestern Bell Corp., will offer digital service reaching two-thirds of its customers in Baltimore-Washington by the end of the current quarter and all of them by the end of this year. "We've been leading the charge on digital since the beginning," he said.

Mr. Shosteck views the dispute with amusement. "Basically they're two kids who are drawing lines in the sand and daring each other to step over," he said.

The analyst said the digital phones are based on a potentially excellent technology that is about five years away from being ready for prime time. One problem he noted was in the vocal coders that translate the digital signal.

"They don't do women's voices well," he said. The units also distort foreign languages and interfere with other devices such as hearing aids, he said. He did allow that the digital phone eliminates static: "It guarantees you static-free gibberish."

Bill Maguire, editor of RJR Radio Communications Report in Denver, agreed that "the technology has a long way to go." He said there were signs that the cellular companies' marketing people might have overruled the engineers on the pace of deployment because of a belief in the "market magic" of digital technology.

"The powers that be are putting a lot of pressure on to roll this stuff out," he said.

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