Dying pager firm's clients frantically try to reconnect

Conxus to pull plug on 80,000-100,000 as of 5 p.m. today

Numbers won't work

August 27, 1999|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

Warning: If you need to reach Bill Reightler after 5 p.m. today, don't use his voice mail service. It'll be dead.

The West Friendship resident is among the estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people nationwide who were taken aback to learn during the past two days that the instant voice messaging service they subscribed to, Pocketalk, would go silent today at 5 p.m.

For many loyal customers like Reightler, a thoroughbred horse trainer, the service and the nifty hand-size gadgets that delivered the voice messages were integral tools in running their businesses.

"For me it was very convenient and it helped save me a lot of money rather than using the cell phone," said Reightler. "I'm on the road a lot. Loads of people have that number."

Like many Pocketalk customers, Reightler is particularly annoyed that the company that offered the service, Conxus Communications of Greenville, S.C., isn't offering to provide a forwarding number service.

So is Jerome L. Kossol, a food service sales representative whose territory includes Delaware and Maryland. "I feel very perturbed," he said. "I've got probably 700 or 800 people to contact and tell them not to use that pager number anymore."

Officials at Conxus (pronounced "connects us") could not be reached yesterday. Callers were greeted with an automated system with no opportunity to leave a message.

The company's customer-service line gave this message: "Conxus Communications, the network provider for Pocketalk and Pocketext, will cease operations effective Friday, Aug. 27, at 5 p.m. We regret this outcome."

The company, which last summer had said it hoped to go public after raising $100 million in private financing, has been in bankruptcy since May.

Customers received voice mail messages Tuesday and Wednesday from the company informing them that the service would go silent today and to seek help from retailers where they bought the pagers. Recently the pagers were being offered for $49.95, plus monthly service fees averaging about $20.

For Reightler that meant driving yesterday to the New Age Communications sales office in Owings Mills.

Offices of the retailer, which is one of two Baltimore area paging service operators owned by Penn- Sel Communications Services Inc. of Bloomsburg, Pa., were jammed yesterday with customers.

"All of our shops in Maryland and New Jersey have basically been swamped all day," said Rick Dworsak, advertising manager for PennSel.

"We had no control over this company going out of business, but we are trying to make the transition to a new pager as seamless as possible."

Dworsak said there were probably thousands of Pocketalk customers in the Baltimore-Washington area, but he had no firm figure.

He said PennSel was offering users free replacement pagers, as well as a laundry list of services including word messages and access to news alerts and other special features for the same monthly fee they were paying for the instant voice mail service, which averaged $20 a month.

Jonathan J. Hakulin, a Severna Park real estate agent with O'Conor, Piper & Flynn, said the transition to the new service won't be seamless.

For one, the business cards and stationery he recently ordered now feature an unusable pager number, so he'll have to foot the bill for replacing all of that.

And he's got dozens of clients and business contacts to alert that his trusty Pocketalk number is, well, no longer trusty.

While those are inconveniences, he's particularly glum about the loss of the instant voice messaging feature of Pocketalk. Hakulin estimates that he would get on average of eight to 10 voice messages a day for business.

"It was a fabulous service," said Hakulin. "The great thing about it was you could be driving down the road and never have to look at your pager.

"You could just listen to the messages, and know right away if was an emergency, or a contract ready to be signed or a client trying to reach you. Nothing else like that exists."

He's right. While SkyTel Communications Inc., the nation's second-largest paging company, and other telecommunications companies offer voice mail, those services operate by sending a beeper alert.

Customers then must call a phone number to retrieve the message.

The Pocketalk service was available only in Baltimore-Washington, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago and parts of South Florida.

Industry analysts said there were probably many reasons for its demise, including competing technologies. They include a new generation of portable phones that feature voice-mail, paging, and e-mail and Internet news alerts.

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