If the communications revolution were laid out like a department store, you'd find pagers in the bargain basement. They're cheap, easy to use, and not particularly cutting edge. But the little beeper is about to make big noise.
One-way pagers are becoming two-way communicators.
Already, consumers can get a device that lets them respond to text messages by pressing a few buttons on a special pager. In the next few years, analysts expect a slew of similar devices that can do everything from retrieving stock quotes to recording voice-mail. "It's a whole new world for paging," says Scott Baradell, spokesman for Paging Network Inc.
The Plano, Texas, operator of PageNet is preparing to test VoiceNow, a pager that acts like a clip-on answering machine. Although VoiceNow is really a one-way product - it can receive but not send voice messages - it still takes advantage of the new two-way technology.
PageMart, another large network, plans to test in Dallas later this year a similar voice-mail pager and a true two-way text-message pager.
SkyTel Corp. is already selling 2-Way, which lets users receive text messages of up to 500 characters and then respond to them by punching in a response from the pager. But unless the machine is hooked up to a keyboard, users can only send back up to 16 pre-defined responses: "Yes," "No," and so on. Still, these machines are a big step forward.
Traditional pagers are cheap because they're simple. A sender punches in a telephone number, the system sends that number to all its transmitters, and the beeper picks it up. A secretary can alert his boss to call in; a mother can beep the kids with a special code.
And with service averaging less than $7 a month, they're much cheaper to use than cellular phones. One in 8 Americans carries a pager. Until this year, they were more popular than cellular phones.
The industry has managed to boost its market by offering more expensive alphanumeric pagers. These allow people to send text messages as well as numbers. But all one-way pagers are limited.
If the beeper is out of range, for example, the message is lost. Also, the network doesn't know the beeper's location, so it has to send the same message to every transmitter. Two-way paging changes all that.
With new protocols and a new and larger part of the radio spectrum to work with, the industry is building systems where the pager tells the network its location. That lets networks send messages to a single transmitter. And it means that networks can guarantee delivery. If the pager is out of range, the network will know it and can store the message for later retrieval.
The industry's enthusiasm for two-way technology has been tempered somewhat in recent months because SkyTel's 2-Way has not caught on with the public. Glitches and the complexity of using the system dampened demand. By the end of March, six months after its launch, the service had a respectable but hardly inspiring base of 30,000 customers, much less than the industry expected.
But company officials and outside analysts are upbeat that SkyTel can successfully relaunch the service. Long term, just about anyone involved in paging senses that two-way paging will be a hit, despite the inroads from other, more sophisticated technologies.
"The demise of the paging industry has been forecast for so long," says Iain Gillott, director of wireless and broadband networking for International Data Corporation. But "what happens each time is that paging basically reinvents itself."
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