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I believe that during the next 25 years we will continue to see the convergence of smart devices, smart networks, a smarter Internet and smart homes and cars

Silver Anniversary of Cellular

Thursday, October 30, 2008

On the evening of October 13, 2008, more than 500 people met at the Drake Hotel in Chicago for cocktails and dinner. All 500 had come to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first commercial cellular phone call in the United States, which was made from the parking lot of Soldiers Field in Chicago when the first AMPS system went live.


The list of attendees read like a who's who in the wireless industry and it would be impossible in this Commentary to mention all of the people who, over the years, have contributed so much to the success of commercial wireless, and it wouldn't be fair to name only a few. But almost without exception, anyone whose name you have seen in print more than a few times over the past 20 or more years was there to help celebrate the anniversary and to look forward to the next 25 years.


One interesting observation is that there were several tables occupied by young adults who worked at Verizon, Research In Motion (BlackBerry), and other companies that had not even been conceived or were still in diapers when the U.S. cellular industry was born. I think it was good they were there and heard about some of the experiences, growing pains, wins, and hard work that has gone into making this industry a success. Another observation is that a number of the people who were pioneers in the early days of cellular were there as CEOs or other executives of new companies, some of which are deploying new technologies. The pioneers have not stopped being pioneers, they have simply moved on to new challenges and still have the same enthusiasm and dedication to this industry as they did when they first arrived on the scene.


It was great to see so many of the people who have been involved in making our industry what it is today. Many had no idea what they were getting into or starting, many had no idea they would make as much money as they have, and even though they have all the money they will ever need, they are still driven by the same desire to push the envelope and move the industry and our technologies forward.


The organization that was formed to host this dinner is not going to stop here. The name of the organization is the Wireless History Foundation and that means it will, I am sure, hold other events that will honor other portions of the wireless industry as well. There were attendees from companies that were leaders in providing paging services, two-way radio companies, and some of the founders of satellite communications companies. RCR Magazine, which a few years ago started the Wireless Hall of Fame, graciously agreed to turn the Wireless Hall of Fame over to the Wireless History Foundation, and I expect to see a number of people inducted in the near future.


The final thought about the evening is that the three women who were responsible for making it all happen and for forming the Wireless History Foundation should be the first three inducted into the Hall of Fame. Not only did they do a tremendous job and perform a valuable service to the industry, in their own way they each contributed to the success of this industry over the years.


A few days after the dinner, I saw a commercial Sprint is running featuring its CEO Dan Hesse. One of the things he said was, "Can you believe we still call these things phones?" Yes, it was a commercial, but he has a point-we have come a very long way in the past 25 years. My first mobile phone was an MTS unit installed in my car. The control head took up all of the space between the two seats and in order to make a call, I had to pick up the handset, wait for an operator, and then give her the number I wanted to call. She then placed the call for me and I was able to talk to the person I was trying to reach. My phone bill was several hundred dollars a month but it did not matter since my customers were getting the level of service they were paying for; it was simply part of the cost of doing business.


To me, several hundred dollars a month to be able to respond to my customers was worth it, and it was worth it to a number of other people as well. When IMTS (Improved Mobile Telephone Service) was introduced, I bought a unit and tried it out for few weeks, but I soon went back to the MTS or Radio Common Carrier, even though I had to wait for an operator. I actually got better service using an operator than I did using the more automatic dialing system because with the IMTS system I often had to wait 20-30 minutes to get a dial tone and place my call.


As soon as cellular phones were available, I had to have one. I worked for a major two-way radio company and convinced the company to provide one and to pay the monthly bill, too! In return, I used the phone to provide the service my clients expected. That first few years was a painful experience. I would be driving down the 405 in Los Angeles, holding a conversation with a client, and the call would be dropped-I would have to dial it again. I thought back to the 1960s when we were using amateur radio systems to place a phone call, and realized that what we had developed as amateur ham radio operators was better than what the cellular industry had to offer.


The difference, of course, was that using the amateur radio system, the conversation was broadcast to anyone who might be listening to the channel and only personal calls were permitted, no business was allowed. For awhile, we battled the FCC about ordering pizza over our two-way radio phone systems since the FCC considered doing so to be conducting business. But that did not stop us from using our "phone patch" systems for this type of call. I remember the first radio system we deployed that worked from Boston down to Washington DC. It doesn't seem like a big deal today, but in those days, being able to communicate to any ham on the East Coast from Boston down to DC was an incredible experience.


But back to why we still call these things phones. I believe it is because today most of these devices are used for voice, then text, and lastly data services. The iPhone and others are making it easier to surf the web and access information on both a near-real time and location basis. But voice still pays the bills, and while iPhone-type devices are making it easier to get to the Internet (or at least most of it), there are still some who not only don't see a need for data services but don't think browsing the Internet is the be-all end-all. The industry's next goal should be to provide more compelling applications that customers will want and need.


A good example of such applications is navigation and turn-by-turn directions. Verizon has VZ Navigator, AT&T has TeleNav, and many networks have the AAA implementation of navigation (both VZ Nav and AAA nav are based on software from Networks In Motion). While the uptake for this application has been good, it has not been great. Perhaps it is because it is a $10 per month add-on, but it is also sold as single-use or by the day. Both the network operators and navigation companies are adding features such as points of interest, traffic reporting, and the ability to use the devices when we are walking as well as in our cars.


But navigation is still, for the most part, a standalone application. It has been added into field force automation software systems and a few other applications, but it is still not what I believe it should be, which is an application on our wireless device that resides in the background and is used from within many other applications. Simple things such as looking up a customer in my address book and having that address automatically transferred to my navigation application would be a good start. Voice is now being used along with website set-up to make it easier to enter destinations and to get directions.


We are at a crossroads for devices. The first 25 years saw us move from 30-pound trunk-mounted mobile phones to handheld phones that are as powerful as many of our desktop computers, and we have been heading for a convergence of the handheld or laptop computer and the wireless phone. Article after article touts the fact that few business travelers are taking both their laptops and their smartphones with them on trips, finding that they can rely on their smartphone with its computer-like capabilities for most of what they need to do on the road.


But with the advent of WiMAX and with LTE looming just over the horizon, many in the industry believe we will embrace a device that might be best called a "tweener," that is, smaller than a laptop computer but larger than a smartphone. These devices will not necessarily have voice capabilities, but are being designed to provide better screens and keyboards so we can use the new, higher data speeds offered to more closely mimic our desktop Internet experience. These devices are being called MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices) or names similar to that. They are supposed to be a big deal and sell in the millions quickly after they are announced. All of the forecasts I have seen from all of the usual companies that provide forecasts, show this category of device taking off quickly and being a huge success. My take is just the opposite. I think smartphones will prevail for several reasons and that these MIDs will end up being niche products, not something teenagers or business professionals carry and use on a regular basis.


Instead, I believe that during the next 25 years we will continue to see the convergence of smart devices, smart networks, a smarter Internet and smart homes and cars. The ability to access, command, and control these smarts will reside in our smartphones first, and then in mid-tier and finally low-tier phones as well. I have been talking about this for awhile: You get into your car and it recognizes your phone and sets up your mirrors, steering wheel, vehicle temperature, favorite music, and, at specific times of the day, perhaps default routes to and from work as it checks on traffic. But there is a lot beyond this type of simple command and control.


In addition to our phones (will we still call them phones?), we will have wireless embedded into many other types of devices including our clock radio (Chumby), and our houses will be smart for lighting, heating and cooling, and even our coffee pot. The smarts in the networks will help us use the smarts in our mobile devices to interact with our other devices and make our lives easier (or more complex for those who are technology phobic). Surveys conducted over the past few years indicate that given the choice of leaving your wallet or your phone at home, the majority of those polled said they would rather leave their wallet at home. But this is not the first time wireless has been cited as the most important item for us to carry. In police folklore there is the story of the police chief who was fighting for a budget for more handheld radios for his department. Reportedly, he put his pistol and his two-way radio on the table in front of him and said, "If I could only carry one of these in my daily work, it would be the two-way radio. We value communications as the most essential tool we have."


The first 25 years of cellular in the United States can be divided into about four "generations." First was the start of it all with the mobile phone in the car, then there was the lousy coverage at a high price era. After that came the handheld, better coverage, and start of 2G services, followed by the fastest-growing decade of all: 2G to 3G, phone to camera phone to phone with powerful computing power, good coverage, and inexpensive services. I believe the next 25 years will be divided into many more generations and the next one will set the tone for what follows: How do we better harness the power of the devices, networks, and information available to us? How do we do this so customers, who don't care about technology, will be tempted to move from a "phone" to a handheld wireless device that is much more than a standalone smartphone that will be a smart device that is integrated into the telecommunications infrastructure, both in our own homes and around the world?


My bet is it won't take us another 25 years to get to the point where wireless devices are embedded into every segment of our lives.


Andrew M. Seybold



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