- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The next time you make a cellular-phone call, it could involve analog technology.

That won’t be the case much longer.

The ubiquitous cellular phone started out using analog cells to send voices hither and yon, but digital technology is changing the face of cellular-phone calling.

Analog, which refers to modulating radio signals to carry voice data, is being replaced with the magic ones and zeroes of digital technology by virtually every major cellular-phone carrier.

These cordless phones got the “cellular” tag because they rely on a series of base stations that divide service areas into “cells.” A cellular call can be made even if the user is moving because the calls can be transferred from base station to base station.

Steve Koenig, a senior analyst with the Arlington-based Consumer Electronics Association, says the switch from analog to digital is mostly seamless for the average cellular-phone user.

A good number of cellular phones today can switch between analog and digital services as needed. Mr. Koenig says some models will display a “D” for digital when they are using digital technology.

Digital offers not only clearer voice broadcasts, but also better security and the ability to pack much more information along the airwaves than traditional analog systems do.

At a time when every other cellular phone allows users to send text messages, swap photographs with friends and download material from the Internet, more information is precisely what consumers crave.

Charles Golvin, a principal analyst with Forrester Research’s San Francisco offices, says some phone carriers, such as T-Mobile and Nextel, have entirely abandoned their analog services.

Digital networks couldn’t be rolled out overnight, though, which forced carriers to serve up dual-mode phones.

“The digital phones were fairly spotty,” he says of the earlier models.

In the early digital days, most cellular phones worked under a system known as TDMA, or time division multiple access. This digital communication technology is going the way of analog, he says.

“TDMA is on the decline,” he says. “All operators with them have [migrated] or are in the process of migrating their networks to GSM.”

GSM, or global standard for mobile, is used “virtually uniformly throughout Europe,” Mr. Golvin says, but only partly in the United States (via companies such as AT&T; Wireless).

Verizon Wireless works under CDMA, which stands for code division multiple access. Both systems offer fairly consistent service, though he says experts acknowledge “that CDMA is the more efficient technology in terms of its use of the airwaves.”

These systems may become obsolete in the next few years, he says, as several wireless companies are tinkering with new systems to rapidly expand the amount of data — and the speed with which they are sent.

Verizon is looking into a new system that promises to send data at speeds around 100 kilobits per second, nearly twice as fast as current cellular phones. Those phones, on average, transmit data at speeds more comparable to dial-up connections, about 56 kilobits per second.

Ed Reynolds, president of network operations for Atlanta-based Cingular, says analog was the only technology available for cellular companies when the medium began in the early 1980s.

Cingular got its start with analog services in 1983 and switched over to TDMA in the 1990s and then to GSM in the past four years. The carrier plans to switch to UMTS (universal mobile telecommunications system), a third-generation system that some believe will become the standard.

These days, analog plays but a minuscule role in the overall Cingular scene — only one-quarter of 1 percent of all the minutes used on the Cingular network are on analog, the company says.

Mr. Reynolds compares the cellular phone’s switch to digital to the transition from LPs to compact discs in the music world. Discs offered the capacity to store more information and provide cleaner sound, the same advantages offered by digital calling services.

Capacity proved a driving force for the industry to change its systems, in part because the government didn’t allocate enough of the airwaves to analog calling, he says.

Another advantage in digital’s column is that it offers more secure conversations.

Anyone who has ever listened in on the local police radio band — based on analog signals — understands that the technology isn’t foolproof. New cellular-phone systems digitize voices and encrypt the material to prevent anyone from tapping into it, whether on purpose or accidentally.

“GSM is intrinsically more secure by being digital… no one can pick it up with a scanner and decode it,” he says.

Ashok K. Agrawala, a computer science professor with the University of Maryland, says the transition from analog to digital isn’t perfect.

For some users, complications could stem from not properly understanding the new technology.

Mr. Koenig, for one, says he didn’t realize he had to install new software into his own cellular phone last year to get the most benefit from it, and he works in the electronics field. Clearly, consumers won’t always know the best way to maximize the technology.

Other problems can be technology-based, he says.

“Any time the carrier is switching, there can be implementation issues and capacity issues. Calls may be dropped,” Mr. Agrawala says.

The original analog system may be going the way of the eight-track tape and vinyl records, but Mr. Agrawala says the technology provided an inexpensive way to establish mobile phone calling.

And it’s not gone just yet.

Analog service still can offer solid communication quality in some areas, he says, so users won’t know they’re relying on a soon-to-be-extinct system.

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