THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC CORDLESS TELEPHONY

JULY 25, 1994

We could have an academic debate on the definition of PCT. We could haggle over the time frame in which to consider its future. Or, we can avoid all of this by not looking at PCT as a new technology, but rather as an approach to fill a known consumer demand.

If we start by asking the question “what does the consumer want?”, we will realistically understand where the wireless world will go in any future period we need to be concerned about.

We can also address how we might get from here to there.

Let’s look at the demand-side rather than the supply-side of PCT.

I. The Consumer is always right!

Of course, the consumer will always tell you that he/she is looking for all the bells and whistles at no cost. However, all that is really expected is solid value as represented by the following:

• reliable service

• universal coverage

• reasonable features, easy to use

• acceptable battery life

• a small, light, hand-held unit

• a robust design

• friendly, helpful service when needed

• fair pricing

• convenience of obtaining service

This is a tall order, but is not unrealistic any more than it is undeliverable.

These criteria apply whether you are looking at FLMPTS, a satellite-delivery service such as IRIDIUM, FLMPTS or any future service that might be envisaged. Let’s look at each of these criteria in turn.

II. Reliable Service

In North America, at least, the consumer expects dial tone within a fraction of a second, low noise equivalent to a land-line phone, privacy, and above all, no dropped calls.

In current mature cellular systems, busy hour network availability is well over 99%. The number of times one can expect to start a conversation and complete it without having the call dropped is better than 96%. Good, although possibly, not good enough in the latter area. Customers are somewhat tolerant of the unavailability of a channel a very peak periods, but are not very tolerant of an interrupted conversation.

With the increased capacity available through digital cellular, busy hour availability should rarely be a problem. Digital does an excellent job of suppressing noise and providing clear communications. It also provides a significant improvement in privacy, even without encryption, which itself becomes much more effective with digital.

Indirectly, it also helps the dropped call situation, as there is considerably more capacity in each cell site, lessening the chance that your call will be directed to a cell site further away, necessitating additional handoff.

At this point, we could conclude that modern digital cellular systems are performing within acceptable limits to the customer, and this will improve as systems are refined. If this is the case, one has to question whether systems, such as the proposed CT2+ Class 2 Service operating over short distances through 100’s or 1,000’s of sites without backup power or other amenities, will ever reach cellular reliability.

It also raises the question about the reliability of satellite-delivered services, which are subject to shadowing from buildings or natural objects. It is now almost universally accepted that satellite services will always work in conjunction with terrestrial services wherever these are available, i.e. they will be dual-mode to provide the most reliable service possible, using the most suitable and cost effective technology.

III. Universal Coverage

This leads to the next point and that’s universal coverage. It has become an expectation of the wireless user that service will be available in most locations he or she might find themselves in. In Canada, the cellular service covers about 87% of the population. Obviously, the dual-mode units operating with a satellite will extend this to essentially universal operation. The proliferation of proposed LEO or other satellite-based projects will, I’m sure, make this a reality by the turn of the century.

Universal coverage, however, also implies coverage in moving vehicles and it is hard to see how a technology built around cell sites with a range of only a couple of hundred meters could ever satisfactorily provide this. Multimode units to operate with these mini cells for static coverage, as well as with satellite or with cellular, will probably be the only sensible answer.

Clearly, the customer would like to be totally independent of the technology and have a hand-held unit automatically seek out the appropriate service as well as the most cost effective service. This implies a convergence of technologies, which seems to me inevitable.

It would appear that for the moment I have found little use for small area wireless systems. This is not entirely the case. There will almost certainly be micro or pico cellular systems to enhance the service in local areas, e.g. floors of an office, underground parking garages or the interior of a restaurant. However, no one can believe that the client of the future will carry multiple units in order to access such services. The multifunction, multifrequency hand-held unit becomes a priority for the consumer.

While on the topic of universal coverage, it has been often pointed out that it is very difficult to sell units for reasons of safety or convenience if the coverage is spotty. If one has trouble on the road or is in danger of being mugged, one will not walk around to find the nearest site where service is available. This is no better than the old corded phone concept.

The winner from a conceptual standpoint would appear to be cellular augmented by a microcellular approach and ultimately satellite.

IV. Reasonable Features

Regardless of the technology, the customer will expect essentially the same features that are available on a wired phone. This is already the case with contemporary cellular systems, but only recently are some very basic features being added, e.g. message waiting.

Another feature that is just coming on the market is the personal phone number, which belongs to the person rather than the unit. Just as the customer will not tolerate multiple units, he or she will not long tolerate a proliferation of phone numbers. Nor is there any reason to perpetuate this outmoded approach. Calls to single personal number can easily be relayed to a variety of units in any sequence the customer desires, or can be forwarded to the universally available voicemail services.

An interesting new development is the availability of multi-language international services that provide effectively instantaneous translation. As the breadth of international coverage improves, this type of service will see a growing market.

As phones grow smaller, voice activated dialing will become almost universal. This is already available on a system-wide basis over cellular and will be a feature of all systems in the near future.

V. A Long Battery Life

One of the major concerns expressed by customers is the limited talk time and stand by time on contemporary phones. A surprising number of technical neophytes now talk learnedly about “the memory effect” when they can no longer bring their batteries up to full charge.

This was one of the advantages proposed for the small cell site systems. However, it should not matter about the network technology as long as the hand held unit is sufficiently agile to power down when near a cell site as cellular does already. Also, the stand-by time is improving as units develop the ability to go to sleep for much of what would have been battery consuming listening time.

Breakthroughs in battery technology would certainly be most welcome. This requirement will likely be increasingly important when people are in more remote areas served by satellites, which could require the units to operate at somewhat higher power levels for long periods.

VI. A Small Light Unit

Everyone has been amazed at the small size and weight of even the initial dual-mode analog/digital cellular phones. One would assume that an all digital phone would be even smaller and lighter. In fact, even today we are approaching the position when size and weight are not a major handicap. Units fit easily into a pocket or purse.

However, assuming one can continue to reduce the size of the batteries and use voice activation instead of a keypad, still smaller units should be quite feasible. I have long been an advocate of the so called ‘pen-phone’, which is not yet a technical reality. But with current microchip technology, it may be here sooner than we realize.

However, there is another trend that needs to be watched. The Personal Digital Assistant has reversed the trend to smaller units. The possible desirability of extensive visual displays for messages, or even baseball diamonds, and the apparent wish of some people to have handwritten input, has lead to larger bulkier units. Ultimately, the answer will be a return to a single, small, hand-held unit, which accepts voice input instead of handwriting and audio messages in place of video displays. The communicator of Star Trek is, I suspect, what the consumer really will want.

VII. A Robust Unit

It is easy to forget that a wireless phone by its nature must work under whatever conditions the user may encounter. If the phone is in a coat pocket and that coat is banged against a wall when someone hangs it up, the phone is similarly going to receive a battering. Just as the phone on a desk is expected to survive a fall on the floor, or the dog chewing the cord, a wireless unit will have to stand-up to a youngster sliding into homeplate with the phone in his or her pocket. The proposed universality of service via satellite will mean that the phones will be used in even more extreme environmental conditions. This, once again, suggests the gradual disappearance of the keyboard to be replaced by voice activation and more advanced voice recognition techniques.

VIII. Service When Needed

The units will likely be sufficiently inexpensive that hardware service will not be a problem. In fact, they may well be throw-away units. In any case, the unit will be personalized by a smart card so that any unit can serve as an access port for an individual simply by personalizing it with a smart card. Backup is therefore easy.

However, the more expensive part of providing service is the personalized customer service representative. This is a built in overhead to most cellular systems, which will no longer be tolerable, except for a price, as prices of service continue to drop. Voice-response units are already widely used in cellular. Voice-recognition will make this even better, as the customer can ask directly for a service rather than having to go through the often joked about menu of “push 1 for this, or 2 for that”.

IX. Fair Pricing

People’s idea of what is fair of course varies. However, the norm in North America is usually set by what people are used to paying for hardwired service. The concept of a dollar-a-day for local usage seems to be an obtainable objective (in current dollars), and not too out of line with customer expectations, e.g. part way between a residential line cost and a business line. The customer will likely be willing to pay somewhat more for the added functionality of mobility.

The concept of charging per minute will likely disappear given the almost limitless capacity that will be available for digital cellular in its later versions. This may be optimistic because the current local usage of a residential phone is around a thousand minutes a month compared to perhaps a couple of hundred minutes average for cellular. However, twelve – fifteen times analogue capacity that is projected for digital, should allow flat rate pricing.

Naturally, the concept of long distance will gradually disappear. Once, satellite or fibre networks are in place world-wide, there is really no reason to assume that it costs more to call Tokyo than it does across the street. Telephony will become distance independent.

X. Getting Started

We are already seeing the birth of a wireless phone as a consumer commodity. One of the early predictions for CT2+ service was that it would be sold in blister packs in Walmart. The phone would be self-activating, the billing would be done by credit card only, the package would contain its own video and/or audio instruction tapes, and there would be no initial set-up fee. What has happened, of course, is that cellular has rapidly moved into fill this proposed advantage for CT2+. The AMIGO system is an example of this new type of marketing. While there is still a high cost per minute, the monthly charge for a handheld unit is already less than the predicted $1 per day.

XI. The Future is Now

All of this may seem like a claim that cellular will do everything everyone will ever need, possibly augmented by a bit of satellite coverage for areas cellular will be unlikely ever to occupy. In fact, this may well be the case. There is already a largely universal analogue network across North America. That is now being overlaid by a digital network of more capacity than one can reasonably predict will be required (but I will likely live to regret that statement!). It makes it hard to see where a spot coverage system fits, and how such a system could be made cost effective.

This does not mean, however, that cellular is without competition. The trend of most countries is to allow more competition in communications, at least after the initial service has had some time to mature. I would predict that the competition to cellular will come from advanced SMR-like services, rather than services of the CT2+ nature. Whether even ESMR can be cost effective against a mature digital cellular system, remains to be seen however.

XII. Summary

If we keep addressing what the customer wants, rather than concentrating on the latest fad in technology, I predict that the penetrations of wireless technology will indeed reach or exceed the predictions made by a few optimists, such as myself, a decade ago, i.e. penetrations of 25-30% of the population by the turn of the decade, will easily be attainable.