DUAL-BAND PHONE PACTS STILL UP IN AIR

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If demand for dual-band handsets can be measured by vendor contracts, carriers must only now be finalizing plans for multi-frequency roaming.

The industry’s most prolific terminal manufacturers have yet to announce volume contracts for these expensive new phones, although some expect to have agreements in hand later this year.

Motorola Inc.’s handset division does not, as a rule, reveal contract information. Nor will Motorola forecast when a product will be introduced, until the item is about to be shipped.

“But we do intend to be in the market with a viable [dual-band] product,” said Jim Caile, vice president of marketing for the Motorola Cellular Subscriber Group. “And how marketable these are is partly in the carrier offering package and acceptance of the end user.”

Nokia Mobile Phones and L.M. Ericsson each have one agreement with AT&T Wireless Services Inc. for dual-band Time Division Multiple Access phones. Qualcomm Personal Electronics is expected soon to announce a significant contract for Code Division Multiple Access dual-band phones.

Manufacturers have anticipated offering dual-band U.S. products by midyear or the fourth quarter; no such phone is available commercially in the United States at this time. Dual-band terminals can operate on two different frequencies.

Until the phones become reality, elaborate assumptions that subscribers on 1900 MHz networks will actively roam onto cellular networks cannot be tested.

Nokia’s contract with AT&T Wireless is for three years, supplying terminals that are dual-band and dual-mode. “We think there will be strong demand for a dual-band product,” said Larry Paulson, vice president and general manager of business development for Nokia Mobile Phones.

“We’re right on course. The word roam will go away. Every market will have access to one of the two technologies,” Paulson said.

While some carriers are clear about their intention to use the phones, others are vague, possibly uncertain or-more likely-determined to keep their competitive strategy under their hats.

AT&T Wireless clearly intends to keep its customers on AT&T properties; it operates networks at 800 MHz and 1900 MHz.

Sprint PCS is less certain, saying it is still pondering the use of dual-band phones. The Sprint partnership owns few cellular properties. Its 1900 MHz networks are positioned to compete head-on with incumbent cellular operators, which leads to the industry quandary about strange bedfellows-why would 1900 MHz operators hand off business to the 800 MHz competitor, and why would cellular operators make roaming agreements with Sprint to help it enlarge its business?

PrimeCo Personal Communications L.P. keeps some cards close to its chest. PrimeCo launched service last fall with a single-band 1900 MHz phone, and says only that it will offer a dual-band phone “to customers who want it.”

Smaller 1900 MHz operators seem to have the fewest options regarding dual-band handsets. These carriers are just beginning to build their networks. A dual-band phone would help them temporarily enlarge their PCS footprint as they expand.

Until recently, that was the plan of Pacific Bell Mobile Services. The carrier’s 1900 MHz networks in California and Nevada use Global System for Mobile communications technology.

But the GSM 1900 MHz footprint is growing so rapidly in the United States that those networks will be able to handle roaming Pac Bell Mobile customers, said Roy Gunter, the carrier’s executive director of business development.

And Pac Bell Mobile would rather see its subscribers roaming onto another GSM 1900 MHz network than that of a cellular competitor. “If customers are going to go outside their home market and roam, we want them roaming in the PCS network,” the company said.

One frustrated 1900 MHz operator recently commented that if dual-band phones aren’t available soon, they won’t be needed. That indicates that dual-band phones have been seen, at least initially, by new PCS operators as a short-term solution.

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