Crumbs for Big Brother

January 10, 1995|By RAY PERSEGHIN

Telecommunications is a big business that is getting bigger, and I'm not so sure I like the idea.

Big companies are forming partnerships to offer more services and vie for control. Pacific Bell is entering the wireless communications market with a system it calls a Personal Communications Service (PCS). This new system will eventually provide voice, data and video two-way communications. People can be reached anywhere, at any time, with just one number. This lends new meaning to the old phrase, ''We're got your number.''

But what if telemarketers were the people with your number? If you think that phone calls during dinner are an intrusion on your privacy, how do you feel about the possibility of getting them over your new ''Personal Communications Service'' any time, anywhere and with video clips included?

This new technology promises a wide range of next-generation wireless services, which include phone numbers that are attached to people instead of locations. Going one step beyond the cellular phone, this service will be able to find you wherever you are, display a product for you to see and provide the sales pitch while downloading the contract data through your ''PCS'' while you stuck in traffic.

Don't get me wrong. I like the concept of personal communications. But, imagine what it will be like to be put on hold with a system like this. Does this mean we will be subject to 5- and 10-second video clips about a product as advertisers move to market their products to captive audiences using a personal communications device? Video communication will surely become the standard of the future, so voice mail and answering machines may be enhanced with micro-advertising on this system. Companies may have us endure a brief commercial announcement instead of the Muzak that has become the brain-numbing standard of the ''hold-button generation.''

Giants of the industry are gathering allies to provide these futuristic services. Three Bell company cellular carriers joined Airtouch Communication in a joint bid for the limited number of PCS licenses auctioned in December. Sprint has teamed with Telecommunications Inc. (TCI), Cox, and Comcast, bidding for the same licenses. AT&T has a ready made bidding team, with its recent $11.5 billion acquisition of McGraw Cellular.

I am not one to shout ''Regulation!'' at the first sign of trouble, but it seems that we who will use these new services should take a hard look at communications of the future.

The technology lines have faded between the telephone, the radio and the television. The use of satellites, microwave and cellular technology blends everything together into just audio and video. At what point does a telephone transmission become a radio or television transmission?

Will the use of personal communications equipment for marketing be governed by the same laws as radio and television broadcast? If not, how will individual citizens be protected from obscenity, false advertising and other practices which are regulated for broadcast media? How will citizens effectively protest practices which are not ''in the public interest'' if they do not have the same right to challenge licensing? What happens when Dial-A-Porn communications begins broadcasting with video?

We need to rethink old laws, which protect certain aspects of communication for the public good, and expand their meaning to include this blending of technologies. Much of radio and television communications today is still governed by a communications act created in 1932. We need to stretch our imaginations and look ahead instead of trying to put out the fires created when technology advances faster than the laws that govern it.

I adapted easily to using a personal pager and cellular phone. They seemed a good way for an active family to keep in touch. PCS technology will probably be just as useful, as long as it is not abused by overzealous advertisers. To stay connected to the pulse of the consumer, marketing techniques will have to adjust instantly when the market moves.

There is another potential use, or abuse, of these technologies. To find people, telecommunications must ''track'' people. Information on where people go might be obtained by recording the cellular movements of a communications link, which equates to tracking a moving consumer. It makes me uneasy to know that every purchase I make at the store may be instantly computed and analyzed by some marketing computer projecting my buying habits. I can just imagine some computer tracking my every move across a PCS system and analyzing my travel patterns.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.