Last Call: Analog Cell Phone Service Disappearing

ByPCWorld

— -- With 4G and WiMax services on the horizon, a new digital wireless era is approaching--but the era of another form of cordless communications is soon to come to a close: namely, analog cellular phone service, which will cease nationally on February 18.

Who cares? Very few, carriers say. But owners of older cell phones, people who are in areas not well served by digital, and owners of home alarm systems should all care.

The shutdown--approved by the Federal Communications Commission--is called the "analog sunset" because those so-called AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone System) networks, which were first deployed in the 1980s and brought cellular service to millions of Americans, will finally disappear.

The biggest U.S. mobile operators, AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless, will close down their analog networks that day. At the same time, AT&T will turn off its first digital network, which uses TDMA (Time-Division Multiple Access) technology. (Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA don't have analog networks.) Calls to some small, rural mobile operators indicated that most of them plan to shut down AMPS, too.

There aren't many mobile phones out there that will go dark after the analog sunset, according to the big carriers, which have been warning subscribers about the change for months and offering them incentives to switch over.

[Is the end of analog service going to put you out? Talk back to us in comments, below. We're also looking for photos of your vintage analog gear. Send your pics (along with your name, location, and a description of the equipment) to yourphotos@pcworld.com

"We're talking about a very, very small number of customers here," said AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel. He estimated that 99.9 percent of AT&T's traffic is carried on GSM (GSM stands for Global System for Mobile Communications and is a leading form of digital cellular). Verizon spokesperson Debra Lewis estimated that less than 1 percent of that carrier's subscribers were on analog even before it started a big effort to reach them last year. Neither company gave exact numbers of customers. But given that those operators have about 60 million subscribers each, the number of analog users might still be in the hundreds of thousands.

Ring the Alarm

AMPS isn't used only for cell phones. Many alarm companies employ the system to alert police or fire departments to emergencies occurring at homes or businesses. About three years ago, the Alarm Industry Communications Committee (AICC), an industry group, took a survey that revealed just under 1 million of the approximately 30 million monitored home and business alarm systems used an analog cellular network, says AICC chairman Louis Fiore. About 850,000 of them used the system only as a backup in case the phone line was cut, he adds.

Alarm manufacturers are now replacing many of those analog systems with digital ones, Fiore says. About six months ago, the manufacturers believed there were about 400,000 AMPS systems still in the field, he notes.

"There are some small companies out there that probably have not made the conversion yet," Fiore says.

One problem, Fiore explains, is that, except for a few high-end CDMA monitoring systems, all digital cellular alarms today rely on GSM. (CDMA is Code-Division Multiple Access.) That creates a problem in areas that have good CDMA coverage but poor GSM, and Fiore says he has heard from at least one alarm company in Colorado that has customers outside GSM's reach. Until now, those customers have been relying on analog cellular.

Certain users of wireless roadside assistance have also been left behind in the transition. General Motors launched its OnStar system in 1996 on AMPS and later switched to CDMA. The automaker didn't wait for the February 18 deadline but instead shut down its analog service on January 1. In a statement on the transition last year, GM said about 90 percent of its subscribers' cars had CDMA or could be converted to use it. Others would lose their OnStar service. The wholly owned subsidiary of GM said last October that it had about 5 million subscribers.

Last March, two OnStar customers in Pennsylvania, Robert and Sarah Gordon, sued GM for leaving analog subscribers behind. They are seeking damages and an injunction to force OnStar and GM to provide repairs or upgrades, and they want to turn the suit into a class action. It has been consolidated with a handful of other actions in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

No Cell Left Behind?

Among cell-phone subscribers, the analog sunset is most likely to hurt so-called "glove-box users," says IDC analyst Scott Ellison. These are users, often elderly, who just keep a cell phone in the glove box in case their cars break down. They usually don't feel a need to update their handsets.

"If you know that you have some kind of wireless link or wireless communications device and you're unsure whether you are affected, call your service provider," Ellison advises. A tip about phones: "If it has a color screen, you should be fine," he said.

AICC's Fiore gives similar advice. Some consumers have ignored potential problems with alarms because they confused the analog cellular shutdown with the end of analog TV, which won't happen until next February, he notes. If you notify your alarm provider and they are prepared to go digital, all a service person will have to do is come into your home and replace the alarm's radio, possibly moving it to another part of the house with better GSM coverage, Fiore says.

The problems associated with the analog shutdown point to a mismatch in the life cycles of different technologies, IDC's Ellison explains. Cars and home appliances often stick around for many years, while wireless communications has been evolving more quickly.

Other problems can hold back switchovers. For example, Illinois Valley Cellular, in rural Marseilles, Illinois, serves few analog phone users but plans to keep its analog network running after February 18. That's because the wind turbines that generate electricity in its service area still use AMPS radios to exchange operating data, according to IVC data routing manager Pam Craig. Replacing those radios would be difficult and expensive.

But as new technologies come along--technologies such as cellular networks that use scarce radio spectrum more efficiently--the old often has to give way, Ellison points out. As technology continues to advance--and advance rapidly--will such obsolescence again overtake the wireless networks we take for granted now?

"It probably will," he says.

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