Paging The FCC…

These days, it seems as though the ads for SkyTel’s two-way pagers are inescapable. In newspapers, magazines, and in-flight programming, I’m barraged with the question, “Can your pager do that?”

Kickin’ it old skool!

No, my digital pager can’t do that. But then again, neither could the two-way pager that SkyTel loaned me earlier this year. My laundry list of problems with the pager was so long, I couldn’t fit all my complaints into a recent post.

I’ve never received as many responses from one area of the country to a column as I did to that one, and most of the comments came from the Washington, D.C., area. Those readers had an entirely new two-way wireless communications service to tell me about.

Recall that in 1994 the Federal Communications Commission embarked on its auction of PCS (Personal Communications Services) licenses. PCS is a wireless technology that overcomes many of the limitations of Cellular Digital Packet Data.

The FCC’s first-round auction of PCS licenses netted the feds $6 billion (despite going directly into the treasury, the funds made barely a scratch in the national debt), and Sprint acquired the lion’s share of those licenses.

Readers wrote to tell me about the first fruits of Sprint’s success at the PCS auction: a service called Sprint Spectrum, which so far is only available in the Washington area. Users seemed so excited about the service that I couldn’t wait to give it a whirl.

After trying the service out, I understand why the Sprint Spectrum users who wrote in were excited. If there ever was a Ginsu knife of two-way wireless communications, this service is it.

The device, which looks like a cellular phone, is a wireless phone, a two-way pager, and a voice-mail mailbox all in one.

Like SkyTel’s pager, the Sprint device’s two-way communications capability guarantees delivery of all messages and pages. If the unit is out of range and the network loses touch with it, the network waits until the unit is within range and notifies the user that messages (either voice mail or pages) are awaiting retrieval. Unlike SkyTel’s two-way pager, however, this feature worked quite well with Sprint Spectrum.

Like the two-way pager, Sprint’s service is capable of preprogrammed responses to alphanumeric pages. If the page is just a phone number, the phone can automatically dial the number back and can also store it for future use.

The service also provides caller ID. When PC Week Labs analyst Matt Kramer called me from his home in Massachusetts, I instantly recognized his number. Caller ID numbers could be stored in the phone for future use, too.

When used for voice, the service was exceptionally clear on both ends. I never heard a cell-hop, nor was I bumped from the network in the middle of a call.

Even more impressive was the modest cost. The most expensive plan offered 600 minutes of peak time and 600 minutes of off-peak time for $150.

I liked the service so much, it left me wanting more–more availability than just the D.C. area, and a way to connect my PC to it. Both are planned, according to company officials, and I can’t wait.

If there ever was a Ginsu knife of two-way wireless communications, this is it.

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