Nextel joins competition for networks Va. company offering wireless phone service to debut in area today

Unique technology

Business likely to lure firms with feature for conference calls

April 07, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

The local wireless communications field gets a new player today when Nextel Communications debuts its all-digital network in the Baltimore-Washington area.

The announcement puts the region on track to have five competing networks before this summer. Bell Atlantic Nynex Mobile, Cellular One and Sprint Spectrum are offering digital services, and AT&T has announced plans for a network debut this spring.

The crowded field could mean cheaper rates for local users, though Nextel's system is more likely to appeal to businesses than individuals, experts said.

"If Nextel focuses in on who their niche is, they should do well. It's not going to be a mass market product," said Jane Zweig of the telecommunications consulting group Herschel Shosteck Associates Ltd.

Nextel, which moved its headquarters to McLean, Va., last year from New Jersey, has made its mark providing wireless communications to businesses. The company's network features technology called Nextel Direct Connect, which allows a user to convert the phone into a kind of two-way radio and communicate with more than 100 others at once. Nextel's competitors don't offer this type of service.

"Nextel's PowerFone offers consumers some unique features especially well suited for the Washington and Baltimore markets," Dan Allen, the company's regional president, said in a news release. The system also features text and numeric paging and voice mail. Each 8.7-ounce PowerFone unit contains a screen that can display up to 140 characters and can store up to 16 messages.

Nextel is establishing a nationwide network that it said features 200 cities. Zweig said the company will make a mark on the industry, especially as the bigger players scramble to establish digital networks.

"They will be a competitor in the marketplace, but no one's really talking about them. They're sort of sneaking up," she said.

Zweig said the company could double its subscriber base this year from last year's mark of 350,000 users.

The company has spent three or four years getting the bugs out of its technology and now has a fully operational system, she said. Nextel uses Mo-

torola equipment.

Coming in as a relative unknown, though, gives Nextel a particular challenge in the marketplace, Zweig said: "Nextel does not have that brand awareness, it does not have the network built out. There will be coverage issues, as there always are with new networks."

But Bradley A. Williams, an analyst for Legg Mason Wood Walker in Baltimore, said Nextel will have automatic status because of its Direct Connect feature.

"That is very attractive to business customers looking for a productivity tool for rapid, cost-efficient internal communications," Williams said. "I think they're going to be a very big player in the region."

Pub Date: 4/07/97

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