Wireless data service is on its way

April 26, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

Bell Atlantic Mobile is set to become the first cellular phone company on the East Coast to offer a new service that would let vending machines, alarm systems and human customers "talk" with their office computers from remote locations without a wire connection.

The Bell Atlantic Corp. unit plans to announce the commercial launch of the new data transmission technology -- known as CDPD, for cellular digital packet data -- at a news conference in Washington on Thursday.

With the announcement that it is bringing the service to Baltimore and Washington, Bell Atlantic will move to the forefront of the industry in rolling out a technology that is expected to have a wide variety of applications for business and government customers.

McCaw Cellular Communications Inc. is conducting pilot tests of CDPD with corporate customers in Dallas, Seattle and Las Vegas, but has not made the technology generally available.

CDPD service is expected to evolve into a national network in much the same way cellular phone service did a decade ago. It is a standard developed by the cellular telephone industry that breaks down data into small "packets" of digitized information and sends it out in short bursts along empty channels in the existing cellular network. The technology is expected to transmit data at two to four times the speed of existing wireless data service.

In a recent interview, Bell Atlantic Mobile regional Vice President Robert L. Johnson said the company could envision CDPD being used by a wide range of customers:

* Vending machine companies could install CDPD units in their machines that would "call" the central office computer when stocks ran low.

* Security services could install CDPD alarms that would be difficult to find and that would have no wires for burglars to cut.

* Utilities could equip meters in remote sites with CDPD units so they could call in their readings.

* Taxicab companies or craftsmen at outdoor fairs could use CDPD-equipped swipe readers to get credit card approvals.

* Trucking companies could track the location of each vehicle in its fleet.

CDPD technology, in the works for several years, has been delayed by technical difficulties and questions of cost. But Mr. Johnson said his company is confident that the technology is ready for prime time.

In its initial phases, Bell Atlantic plans to offer CDPD coverage only in the territory within the Washington and Baltimore beltways and along the Interstate 95 corridor linking the two cities.

"If the market and economics are there, we could have the entire Baltimore and Washington area covered by mid-1995," he said. By the end of next year, the company could have 61 of its top 90 markets covered, he added.

Bell Atlantic Mobile has claimed that CDPD will be less expensive and have broader coverage than current wireless data services, but the cellular company declined to provide details of pricing in advance of the news conference.

The news of Bell Atlantic's planned announcement brought a skeptical reaction from its chief rival in the Baltimore-Washington region, Cellular One.

"I'm a little surprised they're introducing something where there's no industry standard," said Charles Hoffman, president of Cellular One Washington/Baltimore. He said standards would probably be out in the fall and that his company would likely deploy CDPD in the fourth quarter this year.

Steve Virostek, director of mobile data research at EMCI Inc., a consulting firm in Washington, said Mr. Hoffman was technically correct. But he noted that while the CDPD standard was not final, it has been endorsed by eight of the nation's largest cellular companies, including Cellular One's parent Southwestern Bell.

"It's probably the closest thing we have to a standard as sending data over cellular goes," Mr. Virostek said.

Herschel Shosteck, a cellular telephone market economist in Silver Spring, predicted that CDPD service would be erratic during its first two years because "all new technologies have bugs."

Mr. Shosteck said the potential market for CDPD services is small compared with that for voice transmissions.

He estimated that the technology could add 1 percent to 2 percent to the cellular industry's revenues over the short term and up to 4 percent in three to five years.

"Four percent of a $20 billion market ain't bad," he added.

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