ONE by one, telecommunications is cutting the cords that bind.
If cordless telephones let callers roam a few feet, cellular phones let them roam miles. Next on the agenda: a nationwide system of wireless communications, a portable phone that works anywhere.
A caller in Minneapolis dials a friend in New York. The friend is traveling to Kansas City, Mo., so the nationwide system automatically patches the call through to the friend's portable phone in Kansas City. Suppose the friend is in a business meeting and doesn't want to be disturbed by anybody except his boss. The system, knowing that the Minneapolis call is not from the boss, automatically switches the caller to a pager, which records a message.
Far out? Actually, all the pieces are here. "You can do it today, but you have to do it manually," says Paul Saffo, a research fellow at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif. The future belongs to those companies who can integrate these parts into a seamless whole.
"Customers want the convenience to move from one area to another without being telephony experts," says Dale Stone, director of personal communication networks at AT&T. Companies of all kinds - long-distance and local telephone carriers, computer makers, satellite, pager, and other industries - are rushing to grab pieces of this potentially huge new market.
Motorola, a maker of cellular phones, plans to offer next year a wireless one-way electronic mail service for notebook computers. The system, called EMBARC, uses satellite and pager technology. Cable television companies are also eyeing the market eagerly. At the moment, though, the cellular telephone industry appears to have the inside track.
"The cellular industry is one of the fastest growing segments of telecommunications," says Joie Pacifico, AT&T's director of marketing and operations for communications services.
On the service end, AT&T and long-distance competitors Sprint and MCI have announced separate plans to offer national portable-phone service. The AT&T announcement created the most commotion. The telecommunications giant said it would buy a third of McCaw Cellular Communications. The $3.8 billion deal would team the nation's largest long-distance company with the largest cellular telephone firm. Baby Bells cooperate
The regional Bell operating companies, which already offer cellular service, are not standing still. Earlier this year, they agreed to adhere to a standard, called IS-41, which will make it easy for a customer of one cellular company to receive phone calls in areas served by another company.
Cooperation will make a portable phone useful in most American cities. McCaw says it will install IS-41 throughout its network within 60 days. Other companies are expected to move quickly. But to take full advantage of the next generation of wireless service, users will need an advanced portable phone. Actually, it's more than a phone. It's what Apple Computer calls a "personal digital assistant" and what AT&T calls a "personal communicator." A cross between computers and portable phones, the devices wil l handle data and voice.
"It's in your pocket - voice and data capability," says Rob Mechaley, vice president of technology development at McCaw. "In the new world, what will happen is that the data will find you, rather than you having to dial in and get your messages."
It isn't enough to deploy hardware. Software systems need to tie it together. Giant telecommunications and computer firms are developing systems. But small players also hope to play a role.
"Personal communications services are on everyone's mind," says Sid Swartz, vice president of sales and marketing for AccessPlus Communications. The Bellevue, Wash., company has developed technology that ties together a person's multiple telephones into a single system. Each adult gets a personal phone number. When a person is traveling the phone number automatically follows. Home to office to portable phone to pager - whenever the person moves, the system uses a communications device he or she can use. "In order for it to be truly personal, it has to work on any network you might be using at the time," Mr. Swartz says. Just the beginning
While the number of cellular users has grown phenomenally - from 230,000 in 1985 to nearly 7.6 million last year - the industry is still in its infancy. Cellular telephone calls make up less than 1 percent of all US telephone traffic, according to AT&T. The dominance of traditional land-line service will continue well into the next decade, analysts say.
An interesting exception to this trend is Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. There, traditional telephone service has deteriorated so much that companies are finding it cheaper to install wireless communications.
"The most urgent need in these Eastern European communities is the ability to communicate," says Richard Sherwin, president of International TelCell Group L.P. The company is trying to establish wireless communications in Russia, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. Cellular telephones and pagers could become so widespread that they would become the dominant medium of communications.