Backpack

BEYOND CELLULAR

A monthly report on personal health, life and leisure

SARA CURTIS January 23 1995
Backpack

BEYOND CELLULAR

A monthly report on personal health, life and leisure

SARA CURTIS January 23 1995

BEYOND CELLULAR

A monthly report on personal health, life and leisure

SARA CURTIS

Backpack

TECHNOLOGY

It was the third day of the Persian Gulf War and frustration was building .among the many Western journalists staying at Baghdad’s al-Rashid Hotel. One of the many bombs that had illuminated the sky the night before had blown up the nearby telecommunications centre, leaving them incapable of transmitting stories about the fighting to news organizations back home. Fortunately, veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett of CNN had an ace up his sleeve. He went to the room his network was using to store supplies, shoved aside boxes of canned tuna and pulled out a metal suitcase containing a satellite telephone—$52,000 worth of technology that gave him the power to call anyone, anytime, anywhere in the world.

Within minutes, Arnett got through to CNN’s control room in Atlanta—and millions of North Americans were listening to his account of the destruction all around him.

Four years later, a more compact version of Arnett’s satellite phone is about to be offered to consumers at a fraction of the cost of his handset. From today’s new digital cellular phones to the impending arrival of massmarket satellite technology to futuristic multimedia communications software and beyond, the capabilities of reaching out and touching someone are becoming truly astounding.

Much has changed since the cellular phone made its debut in Canada in the summer of 1985. Slightly larger and bulkier than a beer bottle, the original cellular phone is now referred to as “the brick” by industry insiders. It was hideously expensive—better models cost upwards of $3,000—and the reception often sounded as if one or both parties were calling from inside a car wash.

Contrast that with today’s cellular phones, which start at about $99: they are a third of the size, allowing many to be slipped comfortably into a jacket pocket; the Motorola Microtac Elite, currently the smallest phone in the world, weighs less than a D-size battery. More important than the cellular phone’s diminishing cost and size, however, is its expanding capability.

Cellular phones are actually radio transmitters. Up to now, most have used a relatively low-tech analog method of transmission, which modulates the radio signals in a wave pattern so they can carry voice information. Digital cellular transmission—a more sophisticated version that only became widely available this year— turns the signal information into a series of digital bits, reconverting them into understandable language at the receiving end.

What’s the difference? For one thing, each radio channel can carry only one analog call at a time—compared with three calls using digital technology. If analog is a bungalow, digital is a three-storey house; both occupy the same area, but digital has three times the capacity. This expansion of radio frequency capacity allows cellular carriers—Canada’s only two are Bell Mobility and Rogers Cantel Inc.—to increase the number of users, without running out of calling capacity. And with the current 1.5 million cellular users in Canada expected to double by the year 2000, more efficient use of the airwaves is vital.

Digital phones offer advantages to users as well, including greater privacy (digital signals are far more difficult to intercept and decode), longer battery life and better voice quality. The latest models eliminate most static and background noise—the bane of many cellular callers—and will terminate the call entirely if interference becomes too great for the phone to handle. “Think of analog like a car radio,” says Joe Samecki, vice-president of network services at Bell Mobility. “As you’re driving away from the city, radio stations become less and less clear until they disappear entirely. On a digital system, the signal would either come in clearly or not at all.”

For now, digital cellular phones are slightly larger and cost about $100 to $200 more than their analog counterparts. Samecki predicts that digital technology will completely replace analog within the next 15 years, as analog owners slowly update their hardware to take advantage of new products and services.

By that point, however, the satellite phone will be an increasingly important tool in voice communication. Poised for commercial release in Canada at the end of 1995, satellite technology will allow users to call anywhere in North America—from an Arctic igloo to an adobe hut in New Mexico. Currently, cellular service is available to 87 per cent of Canadians, but in geographic terms that is less than 25 per cent of the country. With satellites, every square inch of territory will be accessible. The technology is similar to cellular, except that the radio transmitter is a satellite, orbiting 22,000 miles above the equator. Because it is so high up, it can cover a greater area, without signal interference due to the curvature of the Earth.

TMI Communications, the only company in Canada currently designated to operate a mobile satellite communications network, is planning to launch its $120-million satellite next December. By the end of that month, anyone with $3,000 to spare can acquire a handset, a compact antenna and a transceiver, giving access to telephone service anywhere in continental North America and up to 400 miles offshore.

“This will be a boon to people who live or spend time in remote locations,” says Janis Downey, TMI’s corporate communications manager. “Seasonal fishing camps, remote cottages, camping and canoe trips—people who enjoy these things will now have the added security and convenience of being in touch with civilization.”

They’ll also have the secu-

knowing that satellite phone conversations are all but impossible to listen in on, unless the potential eavesdropper has spent several million dollars on his own descrambling Earth station.

At a predicted calling cost of $2 to $3 a minute—compared with between 40 cents and $1 for cellular service—not everyone will want a satellite phone, at least not at first. But Mitsubishi and Westinghouse, the two companies that TMI has licensed to manufacture the phones, are currently developing a handset that flips back and forth from cellular to satellite service at the flick of a switch. Users could opt for the cheaper method within cellular territory, but take advantage of full satellite coverage when necessary. ‘We don’t see satellite technology as an alternative to cellular, but rather a complement to it,” says Cantel CEO David Gergacz.

Satellite coverage will not be limited to one continent forever. American space systems giant TRW Inc. has teamed up with telecommunications giant Teleglobe Inc. to create Odyssey, a global satellite phone system that uses a network of 12 satellites hovering above the Earth. Set for introduction in 1999, Odyssey will allow its users to phone anywhere in the world at a cost that the company claims will compare favorably with cellular service.

What will they think of next? The 10,000 employees of Bell-Northern Research (BNR) are working on the answer. At the company’s world headquarters in Ottawa and 11 research labs around the globe, work is under way to conceive and build tools for the next step in communication, labelled Personal Communications Services (PCS).

“Communication has always been focused on the phone, not the person, and PCS will change all that,” says Dave Robertson, assistant vice-president of personal communication and small systems technology at BNR. “Right now, people call places, not other people.” They call different numbers—a home, a car, a cottage, an office—hoping to reach someone, and according to BNR the chance of missing that person on the first call is greater than 70 per cent.

When PCS is fully realized sometime in the first decade of the next century, it will be possible to assign everyone a personal directory number that will be used to locate them anywhere in the world. The caller will simply dial a person’s number and the network will find that person and route the call accordingly, to whatever equipment is available, from a wireless phone to a computer terminal. “Wireless technology is the key to PCS,” says Robertson. “It allows people to move around and to control their telecommunications destiny.”

BNR is helping to shape that destiny by developing prototypes for a series of tiny wireless phones that could either be strapped around the wrist, hung from the neck like a pendant, clipped onto a shirt collar or

worn as a headset. They will be available sometime before the end of the decade, and their uses are infinite: Children playing in the park could be telephoned when dinner is ready. At home, each family member could make calls simultaneously on his or her own phone. Because they would be designed for hands-free operation, the user could ride his bike to the mall, sift through the latest releases at the music store and ride home, with no break in conversation.

Even more striking is a wallet-sized wireless device that BNR calls Orbiter, which will use voice-recognition and a touch-sensitive screen to perform an array of functions. Set for release by the turn of the century, it will send memos written with a special stylus, and take phone messages and replay them. It will send and receive e-mail. It will receive faxes. It will act as a computer daytimer and organizer. It will even make a phone call.

The range of possibilities is truly limitless. Whether people will actually embrace this expanding technology, of course, is yet to be determined. Eros Spadotto, director of services planning and development for Bell Mobility, acknowledges that the new technology will only succeed if it fulfils a genuine need. “It can’t just be technology for technology’s sake,” he says. BNR’s Robertson agrees: ‘There are a lot of things we have the capability to do right now, but the question is, do we need them? People have to be emotionally and psychologically ready for these changes, because changing the world people live in can really scare them. We have to remember the human equation in all this.” Anyone who has ever been annoyed by someone talking loudly into a cell phone in the middle of a crowded restaurant knows exactly what he means.