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Many technologies end in grave

Once upon a time, a technology called pACT had a life, savored some love and then disappeared into oblivion. Another one called B-CDMA rocked the eaves of wireless, had an echo and became silent.

Like a wordsmith, the wireless industry had lots of acronyms-B-CDMA, Ermes, FDMA, Modo, CT1, CT2, CT2-Plus-names that during their time were as familiar as cereals. They burst on the scene like meteors and disappeared with the hiss of expiring explosives. They died quietly ever after.

When a technology is in the offing, the sponsors dream a flawless scenario: Networks hum, devices click, subscribers grow and bank accounts wax liquid. A revolutionary idea exhales prosperity.

Act two: The sponsors orchestrate a feeding frenzy in the media, and deny any suggestions that the technology, like many others before, might die in the womb, even before it is born.

These technologies have been tested successfully, and more than a few investors have smacked their lips on the prospects of the financial success of new protocols. But cruel time licked the technologies, one after another.

Anticlimax

While history is a great tonic to those who look back to the small beginnings of GSM and CDMA IS-95 technologies and a few others that have fattened over the years, many technologies provide little cheer.

“Most of these technologies did not die out of inferior quality,” noted Hershel Shosteck, chairman of The Shosteck Group. “They suffered from lack of research and development support and poor economy of scale.”

Martin Dunsby, leader of the wireless initiative at Deloitte Consulting, agreed.

“It was not a failure of technology,” he said. “It was the business models that failed. Sometimes the pricing or the way the service was designed did not work.”

Sounds familiar?

One of the technologies, pACT, or Personal AIR Communications Technology, was ambitious. It was a two-way messaging protocol originated by AT&T Corp. to combat Motorola Inc.’s FLEX technology on capacity, data security and location services. It wanted to differentiate itself further with its small device and power conservation and the ability to be located anywhere, with superior tracking and dispatch-oriented applications.

The technology was rooted in AT&T’s Cellular Digital Packet Data network and targeted pagers, personal digital assistants, home monitoring devices, telephony applications and PCMCIA cards. Trying to build its business model, AT&T allowed hardware and software developers to design pACT-based subscriber units without paying licensing fees.

Yet, in spite of the inbound and outbound data rates, capacity to optimize spectrum and the flexibility of a slew of messaging functions, not many in the industry remember a lot about a technology that seemed headed for a charmed life.

It failed to flex its muscles and Motorola’s offerings of ReFLEX 25, ReFLEX 50 and InFLEXion-with speeds of between 9,600 bits per second and 112,000 kbps-remained on the throne.

PACS, or Personal Access Communication System, was another promising offering in the mid-1990s. Pushed by vendors like NEC Corp. and Siemens AG, PACS was a low-mobility technology designed for smaller personal communications services carriers. Siemens stopped backing the technology when the industry warmed too slowly to it. Hopes generated by a deal between 21st Century Telesis and Hughes Network Systems and tests conducted by a number of carriers like Pacific Bell Wireless and U S West Inc. did not give the protocol any momentum.

The technology, which worked on microcells and short distances, was based on the Personal Handyphone System, which started in Japan. It offered a 32 kbps voice and 64 kpbs data transmission as well as a variety of calling options. It was expected to be ideal for campus and residential areas.

B-CDMA, or Broadband Code Division Multiple Access was promoted by InterDigital Communications Corp., Samsung Electronics, Siemens and Alcatel. Siemens, which was the first to endorse it, was the first to pull out of it. The protocol, which offered voice service at 32 kbps and data at 28.8 kbps, probably had a chance to survive. But the Asian economic crisis burned it to death.

CT1 and CT2, which stood for second-generation cordless phones, had a good chance in the 1980s as a one-way pager. CT2 networks used microcells, but it was a technology that could not survive the evolution of rapid adoption of the wireless phone.

“The cost of the base stations were high as well,” said Shosteck.

Cellular took over once the cost of phones came down, and carriers realized they could not afford to build many base stations at high costs. CT2 services did not succeed in the United Kingdom after many fanfares, although service was actually launched in Hong Kong and held out there for some time until it became obsolete.

DECT, or Digital European Cordless Phones, died in the United States because of the advent of cellular as well and lack of R&D support, so its business case diminished. Dunsby says it still operates in parts of Europe.

Iridium, a mobile satellite service-based phone system, which was designed to work anywhere in the world, went bankrupt last year. Motorola developed it as a sophisticated technology, using large phones and line of sight to a satellite. MSS services fell out of favor for the mass market because terrestrial-based wireless networks filled much of the void between the time Iridium was developed and when it launched.

General Magic was an operating system that had high hopes-until the Internet made it obsolete. It was supposed to provide data wirelessly to both consumer and enterprise markets using intelligent agents.

Ermes, a European paging protocol initiated by L.M. Ericsson, died from a common ailment: cellular.

Another technology called Interim Standard 661, owned by Omnipoint, died, and some question whether it really ever lived. Omnipoint was granted a pioneer’s preference based on its IS-661 hybrid technology. It never made much impact.

Another technology, Modo, was based on a device similar to a pager and pushed by a company called Scout Electronics. It would send information about bars and clubs and all the great places to meet in big cities like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. “Again,” said Dunsby. “It did not work because of its business model.”

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