Cell calls to anywhere

Networks: A Columbia firm develops miniaturized cell phone technology for air, land or sea.

July 26, 2005|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

Jay Salkini, Tecore Wireless Systems envisions the day when you and your cell phone will never be out of reach - whether in the air, on land or sea.

Founded in 1991, the Columbia-based Tecore makes super-small equipment for worldwide wireless communications networks. Its gear is in use in such markets as Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea and Guam. Now the privately held company has developed a miniature cellular network for use aboard commercial or cruise ships, corporate jets or commercial airliners.

"We want to put the maximum usefulness back into cellular telephones," said Jay Salkini, Tecore's founder, president and chief executive officer. "People want to be able to use their cell phones whether they are down the street, offshore or in the air. It's a very powerful concept."

In unveiling its "FlightCore" air-to-ground cellular product in June, Tecore was betting that federal regulators will soon relax the current ban on the airborne use of cell phones and other wireless devices as technology evolves to deal with safety issues. A decision could come as soon as next year.

But substantial hurdles remain. At a hearing this month to explore the pros and cons of allowing the use of wireless devices - particularly cell phones and personal digital assistants - a House panel heard opponents' concerns about incidents of air rage and even their use by terrorists. But others, including business travelers and cellular carriers, urged that the ban be lifted.

The Federal Communications Commission - which announced plans in December to look into a rule change, and is taking public comments until Aug. 11 - currently prohibits airborne cellular services because it fears overloading low-capacity rural cellular networks on the ground.

For its part, the Federal Aviation Administration is concerned that signals from cell phones or PDAs could interfere with an airliner's onboard systems; the agency is awaiting a research study being conducted by the RTCA, a technology-and-communications advisory body that's testing different systems. That study won't be finished until December 2006, RTCA President Dave Watrous said.

With so much work remaining, it will probably be "as much as three years" before an airborne system that allows passengers to use their own cell phones will be commercially available, said Bill Pallone, president of Verizon Airfone, the Verizon Communications Inc. unit that operates the seat-back phones aboard many carriers.

No dollar-value estimates now exist for the potential size of the market for airborne wireless equipment, according to technology research firm Gartner Inc. But Gartner did say that if air-to-ground wireless services were launched in the second half of 2006, it could be offered on 60 percent to 70 percent of airlines by 2009.

Like many of the other players that have announced products for this potential market, Tecore is working with an "airborne partner" it declined to name to test FlightCore, said Salkini, the Tecore CEO.

Although Tecore describes itself as a relatively small but profitable company with annual revenue between $20 million and $30 million, executives say the firm's technology will enable it to compete with industry giants such as Siemens AG.

Its aircraft-based FlightCore product is essentially a cellular-telephone site that's been shrunk to the size of a briefcase, or with add-on modules, a suitcase. That's possible, the company says, because of innovative software that replaces much of the hardware used in bulkier rival systems.

FlightCore allows passengers to use their own cellular phones or other wireless devices, such as PDAs. The product's features also address safety and security issues, Salkini and other Tecore executives say.

For instance, flight attendants can summon up a roster of the cell-phone numbers in use aboard their airliner. With a click of a mouse a flight attendant can bump obnoxious users off their calls, and even block them from the system. That roster feature also can be used to put all users on hold, or to shut the network down entirely if circumstances warrant.

And because the wireless carrier that is operating the base station unit directs all its signals to its network switch on the ground, there's no possibility of overloading another carrier's ground-based network, Tecore said.

But Tecore says it can grow even without the ancillary revenue the airborne-wireless business would generate, in large part because of its overseas business. Tecore has bolstered, or helped launch, wireless networks in several countries, often on tight turnarounds.

Afghan Wireless, the cellular provider for Afghanistan that launched its network in April 2002, is one Tecore success story. Only seven weeks elapsed from the time the first equipment arrived to the time the cellular network was available for use, the two companies said. Tecore has since exported more than $35 million worth of its gear to Afghanistan.

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