November 13, 2000

Free Advice:
A Reality Check For Wireless

Has anyone seen all of the great digital technology we were promised?

By Michael Drapkin

Michael DrapkinY ou know the drill: Your cell phone rings, and people eye you with scorn as your phone blasts out the first few bars of The Lone Ranger theme. Ouch! It's that important client you've been trying to reach. The connection crackles and sputters and your phone beeps twice and pronounces, "Signal faded--Call lost." You utter a small prayer to the Silicon Gods, "Please have my client call me back." When your prayers are answered, your first words are: "May I please call you right back from a land line?"

Sound familiar? Given the choice between a conversation over a cell phone or on a $20-a-month POTS (plain old telephone service) land line, hardly anyone would choose cell. Yet we seem unable to live without cell phones. The phone companies are even trying to push the idea that our cell phone should become our primary phone source for voice and data.

Reality check: I can't even use a cell phone near my suburban New York house. I live in what I call a "cell shadow"--a place where cell service can't seem to penetrate, even though there aren't any noticeable mountains around. What happened to that great digital technology we were promised?

Digital was supposed to end all our woes associated with the old analog system. The problem with analog was twofold: First, it's susceptible to fraud. Analog made it relatively easy for thieves to monitor and steal the service, costing the cellular service providers millions of dollars.

Second, analog phones were big and bulky because the system ran at a much higher wattage. Yet analog required far fewer cell towers because of the high power and was able to reach much farther geographically. Analog service is still there, and it's available for use when your digital service isn't. The problem is that we Americans equate such bulky gizmos with non-cool.

Cleverly appealing to our "small toys are beautiful" belief and our fear of fraud, cell phone companies sold us these myths:

o A good wireless system should be virtually fraud-proof. However, that requires a digital system, where security can be encrypted and encoded. But remember, the real beneficiaries of a digital network are actually the wireless companies, as they eliminate theft of service with digital security.

o A cool cell phone is small - smaller - smallest. In order to have tiny cell devices, with tiny, little, light batteries, the devices must transmit at low power. So cell towers operate at much lower power, requiring many more cell towers than the old analog system. The problem? Not enough cells, not enough power, bad reception, bad trade-offs.

Now that we've been sucked into this spotty digital service, cell phone users are being bombarded with the promises of the many wireless data services coming to the United States, as foreshadowed by the immense cell data activity going on in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia.

Europe, unlike this country, has de facto standardized on a completely different technology--the GSM (global system for mobile communication) digital wireless system. Not only does GSM address the issue of fraud, but you can also roam with a single cell phone from Eastern Europe to Iceland. In other words, all European cell carriers act as a single wireless network. The GSM network also supports advanced data technologies allowing wireless browsing of the Web or equivalent services. In the United States, you must choose a single incompatible vendor, such as Sprint, AT&T, or Verizon, none of which by themselves has enough cell towers to solve the problem.

U.S. digital wireless networks were only designed to support miniscule data rates to a cell phone. Until the cell companies invest in a brand new cell transmission infrastructure like GSM (for more billions of dollars), we can only look longingly across the Atlantic to our European friends and at what they already have.

Once this happens, most of these costly little phones won't work with these systems or let you receive the services you want. But that's the future, and today we wait. Further, I await the day when I can drive up the West Side Highway in Manhattan without having my call drop. Maybe then our cellular networks will be robust enough to handle the rigorous bandwidth and reliability needed for the wireless voice, applications, and data.

Michael Drapkin is the principal of E-commerce management consulting firm Drapkin Technology, chair of the E-commerce track of Columbia University's Advanced IT Management program, and co-author of 3 Clicks Away, to be published by John Wiley and Sons in January. You can reach him at [email protected].

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