It’s the morning after.

The reporter arrives at 10: 15 a.m. at the historic Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., (conveniently across 14th Street from the National Press Building) to interview the co-recipient of RCR’s 1995 Person of the Year: American Personal Communications Chairman Wayne Schelle.

Schelle, 61, greets the reporter at the door. He’s clean shaven, in shirt and tie, looking tired and moving stiffly, with a bit of a limp. He has a painfully cheerful disposition, and despite his hoarseness, begins with unabated excitement to recount the big bash the night before that celebrated the launch of Sprint Spectrum personal communications services in Washington, D.C., and America.

Elaine, his wife of 37 years, marvels to this day about how her husband rolls out of bed every morning in a good mood, ready to take on the world and explore new frontiers like cellular, in the early 1980s, and now, PCS.

A happy warrior is he.

“I always had a lot of fun,” said Schelle, who early in his career worked with AT&T Corp. before taking over a friend’s family-owned paging and mobile telephone company in the early 1980s called American Radio Telephone Services initially and later American TeleServices.

Now APC is a family affair. Son Scott, 34, is chief executive officer of the company. His newlywed wife of six months, Anne, is vice president in charge of corporate communications. And Wayne’s wife Elaine, is his closest business partner.

Back to the party. Schelle, still beaming from the night before, leaves not a detail out. The wisecracking of TV talkmeister Larry King. Parrothead dancing to the live music of Jimmy Buffet and the Coral Reefer Band-Key West partying on Pennsylvania Avenue..

John Kasich, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Budget Committee, arrived in blue jeans ready to go. And there were all the hugs and other congratulatory gestures that engulfed Schelle throughout the night of Nov. 30.

The party was, in fact, a celebration of Wayne Schelle, the man and his pioneering achievements in the wireless telecom industry. The man who built one of the two experimental cellular systems; his in the Baltimore-Washington market. The man who ran the first commercial nonwireline cellular system in the nation’s capital, Cellular One, setting the standard for all future cellular networks.

The man, who after cashing out of the cellular industry in the late 1980s, decided there was a better mousetrap to be built, and built it-PCS, a full spectrum of voice and data digital wireless services squeezed into a lightweight palm-sized device. He was back in his element.

The inaugural PCS call was made by Vice President Al Gore-information superhighway poster child-from the White House to Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke on Nov. 15.

Forget the policymakers and telephone company lobbyists who forced APC to cough up more than $100 million for a license originally awarded for free in recognition of the spunky firm’s spectrum-sharing breakthrough. Forget the early battles with the cellular industry over turf. Forget the persnickety local government officials with oversight of antenna tower siting. Forget all the headaches and heartache since 1989, when APC received the first U.S. PCS experimental license. APC, embodying the entrepreneurial spirit and staying power of its chairman, partied this night with the same energy that the small firm put into all the long days during the last six years. The Bethesda, Md., firm of 275 employees had crossed the finish line. First. Now, it was time for a little fun.

PCS was real at last. APC is the 49.5 percent owner of the Sprint Spectrum franchise in Baltimore-Washington. The Sprint Telecommunications Venture (Sprint Corp. and cable TV giants Tele-Communications Inc., Comcast Corp. and Cox Communications) holds a 49 percent stake and The Washington Post Co. owns 1.5 percent.

“We were looking for a national brand name and I didn’t think `Wayne’s PCS World’ was going to make it against the big guys (like AT&T Corp. and the Baby Bells),” quipped the good-natured Schelle.

It’s not that the hard part is over. Schelle knows Sprint Spectrum must produce changes in attitudes to attract enough consumers away from one cent cellular telephones to pay for the nearly half-billion dollar capital and license expenditures and make a profit one day five or so years from now.

Financing, marketing and strong management are key to success, according to Schelle. “You’ve got to be able to stand there and take a big whipping financially for four or five years until you stabilize yourself,” he said.

That’s not all. AT&T Corp. will be in town soon to compete with Sprint Spectrum, followed by the winner of C-block PCS auction that is scheduled to begin today. “I think we’ll fare very well against cellular,” said Schelle. “They (cellular) will do all they can to re-outfit what they have to offer and they’ll be tough competitors because they have a lot of money.”

Not to mention a 10-year head start. Another possible snag is technology. APC uses Global System for Mobile communications technology, which is embraced in Europe and other parts of the world, while its partner, STV, and other major PCS players have adopted the Code Division Multiple Access standard developed by Qualcomm Inc.

Schelle’s got it covered. Sprint Spectrum has roaming agreements with current PCS licensees and some in Europe that have chosen GSM technology and feels confident the C-block auction will produce more. In addition, Sprint Spectrum plans to spend another $100 million to overlay CDMA technology on top of existing systems.

Besides, “I think technology is a back-seat item,” said Schelle. “The wars will be won and lost in advertising and distribution,” said Schelle. “I think the fast food people have proven that Wendy’s, Burger King, McDonalds, Hardee’s and Roy Rogers can all coexist on the same street corner.”

Schelle is not discouraged; there’s a clever grand plan in play. The idea is to compete against, rather than with, the two cellular carriers in the Baltimore-Washington market

It means differentiating PCS-a wireless phone, pager, answering machine and more-from cellular.

How? Try better quality; lower service charges; free airtime; privacy; no annual service contracts; no early termination penalty fees; no dropped calls and no cross-talk. Just pick up a colorful shrink-wrapped Sprint Spectrum boxed phone, get activated, and start yakking away.

Schelle also points to the 30 percent churn rate in the cellular industry, which now claims 30 million subscribers.

Seeing the limitations of cellular technology and ready for a new challenge, Schelle said he became intrigued about a new wireless development in the United Kingdom during the late 1980s called personal communications networks, or PCN.

Schelle went to his lawyer, Jonathan Blake, and said he wanted to apply to the Federal Communications Commission for an experimental license. The two men approached then-chief FCC engineer Thomas Stanley, who encouraged them to go forward but with the caveat that then-FCC Chairman Alfred Sikes wanted the new service to be American-made.

Simple enough. Schelle and his wife the next day formed a new corporation, American Personal Communications. And instead of PCN, as the Brits called it, Schelle referred to this brave new world of wireless as personal communications services, or PCS.

Today, Schelle is looking beyond the coming wireless wars to something potentially bigger. He realized just how big recently after finishing a conversation with his son, Scott, from his PCS phone at home. Elaine, his wife, asked him why he didn’t use the regular landline phone. “I said, `You know, Elaine, in three to five years there won’t be that regular phone.’ It was an interesting phenomenon.”

So is Wayne Schelle.


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