Digital portable phones offer plenty of reasons

to replace those old-fashioned cell phones - Oct 14 1997

It's been hard to miss the recent advertising blitz promoting digital portable telephones. For a couple of weeks at the end of this summer, a blimp seemed permanently stationed above my East Vancouver home. Gently buzzing to and fro, it carried the logo of Fido, trademark of Microcell, one of three companies licensed late in 1995 to offer DP service across Canada.

At the same time, Fido competitor Cantel sent me a digital phone to play with for a month. One of the high-end models from Swedish electronic firm Ericsson, the phone was small enough to fit into my pants pocket, along with my keys and change.

Why the hype? Cell phones have been available for years, to the point of being popular enough to cause their share of car crashes from users trying to talk and drive at the same time. They've also crashed the odd politico and celebrity's career as a result of the ease with which cell conversations can be overheard.

PCS (Personal Communications Services) is a digital technology, while the older cell phones are analog. So what, I hear you ask?

While anything digital carries with it the cachet of modernity (think of spicy digital-audio CDs versus boring old analog cassette tapes, digital watches versus Things with Hands, high-res DVD versus frumpy VHS tape, and so forth), there are some benefits for the consumer -- and more for the companies offering the PCS service.

Because the signals received by the PCS phones are simply a series of encoded numbers (like all digital signals), they can be used to receive more types of data than just voice. PCS customers can opt to receive voice messaging and even e-mail. Yes, real Internet e-mail, sent from any e-mail software to an address that starts with your phone number. (Because of the tiny screens on the phone, you only get the first 150 characters, limiting you to the "ET phone home: 555-1212" sort of message.)

Because digital signals are transmitted digitally (natch), they aren't as easily intercepted as traditional cell conversations. No, this doesn't mean they are totally secure, but for now, your digital calls are more private than over a standard analog cell phone. As well, digital calls are billed per-second, resulting in savings for the user because that four-minute, 13-second call is no longer rounded up to five minutes for billing purposes.

While we're used to thinking of digital as offering better sound quality than analog (think again of CDs versus scratched and stretched cassette tape), PCS phones don't necessarily sound better than analog cells. They just sound different. (Recipients of my calls knew I was calling from a portable phone; a few times the sound quality was so poor that I had to try again later from a real, wired phone.) However, the PCS phones' battery life is much better than on a standard cell; it's practical to leave a PCS phone on most of the time, awaiting calls.

The various companies offering digital services are expanding the areas covered; currently most metropolitan areas are covered. Outside those areas, the PCS phone typically and automatically switches to analog mode to thus connect to the standard cell network. Callers can even reach your number when you're travelling across Canada (and eventually, perhaps, worldwide as domestic services reach agreements with overseas carriers). Of course, somebody's going to have to pay long-distance charges in those cases!

While some customers will find the added features or security of a PCS phone worth paying for, the service really solves a growing problem for the cell-phone services. In major cities, there's a growing shortage of bandwidth for traditional analog cells. Because of the digital nature, a PCS signal takes only one-third the bandwidth of an analog call; providers can pack three times as many callers into the same amount of bandwidth. As a result, we're seeing furious competition for customers, particularly between Fido and Rogers/Cantel.

That competition has resulted in prices dropping in some cases; at first, customers had to buy or lease their phones, but now they can get some models included in their contracts. (You may not be able to get all features, such as e-mail, with those models.)

Personally, I'm more interested in seeing what's available in the near future.

As digital devices, PCS phones are really tiny computers with a radio link. That means it's technologically possible to merge them with handheld computers. I'm waiting for a model offering the features of both a small computer and a PCS phone, letting me write a memo or browse the Net from the same unit I use to take a call. Add in the other almost-here technologies of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and digital wallets (we'll talk about these in future columns) and we'll be seeing a technology that could be incredibly useful.*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan