STARTING this fall, Groton, Conn., police will have a high-tech edge over criminals: wireless messaging.
When officers pull over a speeding motorist, they will be able to punch in the license plate number and pull up the owner's record. In seconds, they can find out if they are dealing with a dangerous criminal before getting out of the car. ``I think it makes the community safer,'' says local police chief Tom Falvey. In this era of budget cuts, his officers often do not radio in car registrations because dispatchers are overworked. This system is possible thanks to cellular digital packet data (CDPD), which Bell Atlantic Corporation officially began deploying last week.
Other CDPD applications are waiting in the wings. Traveling salespeople can send in orders - and receive confirmation - during lunch. Mobile executives can receive messages from their corporation - or the globe-spanning Internet.
Depending on the number of messages they send and receive, CDPD users could end up spending $15 to $50 a month.
``I need it badly,'' says Denise Caruso, editorial director of Technology & Media Group information services in San Francisco. ``There are a lot of people who spend time on the road [for whom] being paged isn't good enough.''
Bell Atlantic's system is the largest and one of the nation's first CDPD networks. As of last week, it covered Washington, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh. Bell Atlantic promises CDPD will be deployed in at least 60 markets this year.
``It's here,'' says Ben Scott, chief operating officer of Bell Atlantic Mobile, the company's wireless communications unit. ``It will give the competition a run for its money.''
Analysts have long predicted that cellular telephone companies would strike back at competition from digital wireless systems, such as personal communications systems and proposed satellite technologies. Their immediate weapon is CDPD.
When today's cellular telephone users pick up the phone, they use one channel within a cell. When they leave cell range, the system hands them to another channel in another cell. So, for an instant or more, the first channel goes unused. Telephone technologists have found that they can capitalize on this unused capacity by sending wireless messages. The messages use channels more efficiently than an analog cellular call because they are digital. At the sending end, a computer breaks each message into packets, which are sent and then reassembled by computer at the other end.
``CDPD will succeed because it builds on what came before,'' says Richard Lynch, Bell Atlantic Mobile's chief technology officer. Upgrading cellular systems with CDPD might add 10 percent to the cost of a $500,000 to $1 million cell site, he estimates. By 2000, the unit expects one-fifth of its revenues will come from wireless data.
The technology is attracting interest from equipment makers and software companies. Cincinnati Microwave is building CDPD modems; Sierra Wireless is integrating the technology into its wireless modems; and IBM is selling a $1,999 wireless communications module for its ThinkPad 750 notebook computer.
The machine can handle just about any communication, from CDPD messaging to cellular telephone calls, data transmission, and wireless faxes. ``Everything's in there,'' says Jonathan Gandal, spokesman for the IBM PC Company. ``CDPD is clearly something right now that we want to offer as additional flexibility'' for the user.
Eventually, more portable, all-digital technologies will supersede CDPD, analysts say. But, for now, cellular telephone companies offer the broadest range of wireless communication. ``Everywhere you look in the company, there's some niche where we can apply this,'' says Rich Razon, a technical consultant with USAir.