Cellular Network's Big Step

By Anthony Ramirez
The New York Times

October 15, 1991

Telecommunications executives have long realized that for the cellular telephone to capture the public's imagination, cellular companies have to improve service and provide a national network like that for the more familiar telephone attached to a wall. Now, McCaw Cellular Communications Inc., the nation's largest provider of such service, is about to take a big step toward achieving that goal.

McCaw plans to announce in New York tomorrow that after more than a year's work and a $200 million investment, the company has knit together its properties in four giant regions of the country in the first major move toward a national network.

Cellular service now has several drawbacks. A cellular telephone subscriber driving from San Francisco to New York can still make calls, but service may be spotty, And in remote rural areas calls may not be receivable at all. Callers would have to know the subscriber's location and dial cumbersome access codes in order to complete a call.

Seamless Transfer of Services

While still far from a national network, the new McCaw system will allow a McCaw subscriber to send and receive calls with ease. A San Francisco subscriber would also enjoy the same services, like call forwarding and voice messaging, in New York or the other regions. The seamless transfer of such services is an important skill in developing a national network.

The network will be called the North American Cellular Network and marketed under the name of Cellular One. The regions are the area of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the Northeast, Florida in the Southeast, California and Nevada in the Southwest and Washington and Oregon in the Northwest. In all, the regions have a population of nearly 60 million, with 17 million of these potential subscribers in the New York area.

Although cellular telephones resemble walkie-talkies, they are actually portable radiotelephones that can make virtually any call made by a conventional telephone. Cellular phones, originally developed by A.T.& T.'s Bell Laboratories, can be carried in cars, briefcases or shirt pockets. They connect, through a system of fixed radio transmitters, or "cell sites," to conventional providers of local service, like the regional Bell operating companies, and to providers of long-distance service, like the MCI Communications Corporation and U S Sprint.

McCaw plans to tie more of its properties into the network and then attempt to form alliances with other cellular companies to extend that network. The company, based in Kirkland, Wash., has 100 million potential subscribers, most in desirable urban areas. "We have the critical mass to lead a national network," said Craig McCaw, the company's chairman. "But we don't have to own it. What follows next is persuading partners, not acquiring them. It's politics, not finance."

There are more than 1,000 providers of cellular telephone service in the country, but 25 large companies have franchises in areas with 80 percent of the United States population, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, a trade group.

Mr. McCaw said the project would bring improved service especially to New York City.

"We wanted to make Manhattan the centerpiece of the project," Mr. McCaw said in an interview. "If we can improve service in New York, one of the toughest areas to provide cellular telephone service, we can go far in convincing people of the worth of cellular telephones."

Throughout the 1980's, McCaw acquired cellular properties, piled on more than $5 billion in debt and accumulated tens of millions of dollars in operating losses. Last year, it acquired 52 percent of Lin Broadcasting, one of the largest cellular companies in the country, with big operations in the Northeast, including the most desirable territory in the country, Manhattan.

Once one of the hottest of stocks, McCaw has seen its share price hurt by investors averse to highly leveraged companies. McCaw closed yesterday at $28.25 a share, up 50 cents, in over-the-counter trading. Last year, the stock had traded as high as $38.50.

In the 1980's, when the Federal Communications Commission assigned much of the country by lottery to hundreds of different companies in random patchwork, industry executives likened the process to Humpty Dumpty's great fall. Since then, the big cellular companies, through purchases and alliances, have been trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Computer Code Reprogrammed

Now, through the technical skills learned in putting together the new Cellular One regional network, Mr. McCaw believes that his company and future network partners can cooperate in a national network. McCaw successfully reprogrammed nearly 10 million lines of computer code, involving some 144 million possible telephone numbers. Differing computer protocols, from different computer makers, had to be resolved so that the computers of Cellular One could talk to one another.

Nicholas Kauser, McCaw's chief technology officer, compared the situation to an English speaker and an Eskimo trying to discuss snow. "If you just said the word 'snow,' the Eskimo, who has many different words for different kinds of snow, would not know what you mean," he said. McCaw technicians developed a new kind of computer patois.

New York posed another kind of problem. In Manhattan, with its many skyscrapers, a cellular telephone signal, like a billiard ball, could careen crazily down a concrete canyon and wind up, uselessly, in the East River. Manhattan subscribers to Lin Broadcasting, now a unit of McCaw, were often frustrated by busy signals and blocked calls, especially in midtown Manhattan, one of the principal business districts. Swiss Cheese to Cream Cheese

"The pattern of coverage was Swiss cheese," Mr. McCaw said. "We've gone a long way in making it cream cheese." The problem was especially severe for portable handsets, the tiny low-powered phones the size of a package of Twinkies than can be slipped into a shirt pocket.

Lin Broadcasting technicians in Manhattan believe they have largely solved the coverage problem by increasing the number of cell sites, or critical radio transmitters, to 23 today, from 11 in July. New computer software and switching equipment from Ericsson, the highly regarded Swedish company, helped, too. The advanced equipment is better able to track a cellular telephone subscriber in a taxicab as it rounds a corner, an especially vexing piece of cellular-telephone geometry.

One of the toughest problems was the lobby of the NBC building in Rockefeller Center. Under the best of circumstances, a cellular telephone signal has difficulty penetrating its thick reinforced concrete walls. But the signal from the nearest McCaw cell site, on a rooftop at 55th Street and Madison Avenue, was blocked by skyscrapers. It was impossible to make a call with a tiny shirt-pocket phone.

Tricky Geometric Solution

The solution? Find some way to use the skyscrapers along the Avenue of the Americas -- the Exxon, the McGraw-Hill and the Time-Life buildings -- to bounce a signal toward the NBC building.

Using portable test equipment, the Lin technicians drove around for hours to figure out optimum angles. By carefully canvassing several blocks to the south of Rockefeller Center, Lin technicians found 14 possible buildings that would make good cell sites for transmission.

After more than a year of negotiations, Lin officials settled on a building at 46th Street and the Avenue of the Americas. Why reject the other 13? "Hey, this is New York," said Christopher J. Resavy," an engineering manager for system implementation for the McCaw network. "They rejected us."

Copyright 1991