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Cellular to PCS - A Brief History

The must-have accessory for the new century? The cell phone, of course!

From suited power brokers to ripped-jeans-wearing college kids, wireless has been the way to go. Today, there are more than 226 million US wireless customers, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Assoc. (CTIA), so it's difficult to imagine that cellular service was invented about 55 years ago. The business of wireless started as just a whisper some 25 years ago in selected markets and grew steadily into the huge industry that it is today.

Wireless services started with a blueprint that relied on cellular technology. Cellular's name connotes that each geographic region of coverage is broken up into cells. Within each of these cells is both a radio transmitter as well as control equipment. The first cellular services, which operate at 800 MHz, used analog signals. Analog sends signals using a continuous stream or wave. When a cellular phone customer turns on his phone, a signal is sent that identifies him as a customer, makes sure he is a paying customer, then searches out a free channel to fit his call.

PCS, or personal communications services which operates at 1900 MHz, on the other hand, followed years later. New entrants into the wireless market chose digital technology instead of analog. These companies saw the promise in building out PCS (personal communications services) systems based on digital, and hope to benefit from continued growth.

Unlike analog which sends signals using a continuous stream, digital technology works by sampling pieces of the wave, chopping it up and then sending it in bursts of data. Digital technology basically encodes the voice into bit streams. It is this delivery that makes digital more suitable to carry data, say fans of the technology, not to mention more secure. Other benefits of digital include better usage of "bandwidth," or the power of the frequency, and a less chance of a corrupted call.

One of digital's drawbacks, however is its host of different technologies. There are three digital wireless technologies: CDMA (code-division multiple access), TDMA (time-division multiple access), and GSM (global system for mobile communication), so phones that work with one technology may not necessarily work on another network that supports another technology.

Drawbacks aside, digital is shaping up to be the technology of the future. If customers switch in their landline phones for one phone--their wireless phone--it will most likely be based on digital technology. This phenomenon, called wireless local loop--or using wireless as one would use a fixed phone--is especially taking off internationally where telephone infrastructure is scarce and very expensive to install. Wireless phones are the quick and easy way for a wireless operator to get phones and phone services out to customers. And with the tidal wave of new data applications being designed and implemented for digital networks, digital looks like the next-generation technology title winner.

The Team


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