Digital Update - Call Back Later

The world of PCS.

Remember the wrist phone that the folks from AT&T Bell Labs were flashing on the news about a year ago? That device — which still isn't available — is the harbinger of a new wireless phone called PCS, Personal Communications Services.

PCS is fully digital, so it comes with better audio quality. Sprint Spectrum in the Washington-Baltimore area has already introduced a PCS service for $15 per month. The package has more services than any cellular provider can offer, at half the price.

So PCS will take over, right?

Don't bet on it. There's no single digital standard for PCS. When carriers get around to deploying the service in other cities, some of them won't be compatible. Cellular service is also going digital, so many of the features boasted by PCS may soon be available with digital cell-phones.

Unfortunately, the cellular carriers can't seem to agree on a digital standard either. Currently, there are two digital voice cellular systems being used across the United States: CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) is supported by Bell Atlantic NYNEX; TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) is AT&T Wireless's choice. Meaning? Your new phone will lose its digital features when you roam into a rival's territory.

Undaunted, manufacturers are previewing zippy smart phones. These devices follow in the footsteps of personal digital assistants like Motorola's Envoy Wireless Communicator (p. 137). Costing about $1,300, the Envoy's touch-sensitive screen lets you carry a calendar, a personal finance package, and other software as you cruise the Web and communicate with e-mail. It's lighter and smaller than a laptop computer but too big to fit in a jacket pocket. Enter Nokia, which is demonstrating its all-in-one 9000 Communicator. The 9000 is a digital GSM cell-phone that flips open to reveal a tiny key pad and a screen for accessing Internet services. Retailing for about $2,000, it will be available in 89 countries in Europe and Asia later this summer. The rest of us will have to wait. One of the few U.S. carriers with plans to introduce a GSM system is Pacific Bell Mobile Services — sometime in 1997.

Coordinates: Motorola, Inc., 800-548-9954; Nokia in Helsinki, 358-10-5051.

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