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Cutting the Umbilical Cord

Whatever are kids going to do?

Time was when they'd put a string between two cans to play at phoning each other, but now, thanks to the constant advance of technology, their homemade attempts at reaching out and touching someone are becoming less and less "current."

After all, this is the decade in which wireless communication has taken off and cellular phones have evolved from multi-thousand dollar monsters to $100 Lilliputians that slip into (and, if you bend over without forethought, out of!) a shirt pocket.

Oh sure, we'll remain wired for the foreseeable future, but more and more people are choosing to cut that physical connection for their personal or corporate communications - and not just for talking to people, either. Data transmission is also beginning to leap from the wire and into the ether.

Cutting Loose…

A study done for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association claimed that the young and educated Albertans were more likely to use wireless phones than any other identifiable group of Canadians. This shouldn't come as a surprise, since Alberta as a whole has the most per capita cellular phone use in Canada, but it’s interesting to note how youth are riding the crest of this communications wave.

The story is much the same across Canada. Over a third of Canuck households currently have access to a wireless phone, and that figure is estimated to increase by up to 30 per cent (to about 5.6 million households) before summer of 1999. And this trend is naturally being repeated in industrialized countries around the world.

So while it may not be time to dump your shares in copper mines, it may be time to diversify…

Wired networks still have their uses, as well as a huge, already built-up infrastructure, and while wireless communication will probably never completely replace physically connected networks, the "non-physically connected" network is expected by some in the industry to equal the wired world in size and scope before long.

Part of the reason for the growing success of wireless networks is the advent of the digital networks, which increase capacity while enhancing service and features. Another is the decrease in prices of both hardware and airtime: depending upon your service provider and your service agreement, using a $100 (or less) digital cellphone can cost little more than using a conventional landline telephone - at least if you're not too verbose.

If you talk a lot, or travel a lot, however, you can end up paying through the mouth.

Outwardly Mobile…

Still, the price and efficiency of today's digital PCS phones make them powerfully attractive, especially to businesses or people who don't already have their own phone number. This may be one of the reasons young people are so inclined toward digital cellphones: even if they still live at home, they can have their own "presence" in the phone system and when they do finally move out they already have a phone number they can take with them.

Most people don't use their cellphones as their primary phones, partly because of – despite falling prices –the relative premium on airtime, but service providers are working hard to change that. Canada's Cantel, for example, says it's working toward a not-too-distant future service that won't charge customers airtime for calls they make from inside their "home zone." This would mean that only calls made while out and about would be charged airtime – blurring the line between wired and wireless service and allowing people to have individual phones, as opposed to home-based units.

The trend toward "personal phones" as opposed to "home phones" means that in the future people will be calling people, instead of calling places. So if you want to phone Josephine Smith, you'll call her phone (which could be anywhere) instead of calling her home (which remains static unless she lives in Tornado Alley).

Such personal, portable, communication is also perfect for "transient" people, those on the go or who change residences often. It can also be nice to have a wireless phone as a backup to a home's conventional phone, especially if you have only one hardwired phone line and like to surf the Internet (which ties up the line for people trying to get in touch with you) – or have teenagers.

Consumers can also look forward to "number portability" as a further incentive to snipping the wire. For several years you've been able to take your phone number with you when changing residences, depending upon how far you move, but this will eventually also hold true to the move from wired to wireless.

In fact, a trial of this concept has already been completed in Alberta and proved quite popular.

Why worry about taking your phone number with you to the wireless world? It makes life easier if people don't have to relearn your phone number every time you move - and you don't have to remember a new number either.

Non-Portable Portables

There's another market for wireless telephony that, while not strictly analogous to digital PCS, shows the power and potential of wireless technology. It's called the "fixed wireless access network," or "local loop network," and its market isn't people on the move. Instead, these networks are targeted at people living in more remote locations where it's expensive to run the wires of conventional phone systems.

Already in service in some Ontario areas, where a few hundred "party line" customers were upgraded to private, wireless networks, as well as in countries like Kenya, Poland, and Colombia, the technology sees wires running only from the home to a nearby antenna, possibly mounted on the house or the barn.

From within the range of the antenna and handset, you have full telephone service, including Internet access if you want, without the service provider having to swallow the $30,000 - $40,000Cdn cost of running a line onto the property. It's a nice, "win-win" scenario for the customer and provider alike.

The next generation of wireless communication could be the satellite phone, which as the name suggests uses orbiting birds instead of land-based antenna towers or ground-based wires. This is still a pretty expensive way to go, however, though prices will undoubtedly come down over time. So while the existing wired network will continue to serve its client base well, the new generations of "freewheeling" wireless services will augment them, offering customers a measure of freedom and flexibility hitherto unseen.


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January 31, 2006