The growing popularity of cordless and cellular telephones is an indication that Americans are ready for the next step in telecommunications - personal communications networks.
But there are still many things to resolve, not the least of which is whether these networks should fall under regulatory control by state public service commissions since most will use low wattage radio waves instead of wire line networks.Part of the problem, said G. Mitchell Wilk, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, is that there is still no firm consensus on what form personal communications networks will take, just who will want them, who will provide them and whether they will need traditional utility regulation.
Wilk, who moderated a panel discussion on the issue during a recent telecommunications conference in Salt Lake City, said initial efforts in the United Kingdom have failed to penetrate the telecommunications market there to any significant extent.
"The question seems to be whether there is any sane reason to regulate them," Wilk said. "They may be the answer to the monopolies that presently control the telecommunications industry."
The goal of PCNs is to allow instant telecommunications at any time and from anywhere. Prognosticators also envision transmission of computer link data and fax machine reproductions, all in a "tetherless" environment without land-line connections.
The technology needed to make the systems work has been under development since the 1960s. The most visible sign of this technology is the cellular telephone, which has evolved from the restrictive, heavy, automobile-mounted systems of a few years ago to lightweight systems, some small enough to slide conveniently into a suitcoat pocket.
Microwave relay systems using base stations to feed into the land-line networks have created a network that makes cellular telephones useful in virtually every area of the continental United States.
Don Cox, division manager for Bellcore in Red Bank, N.J., has been heavily involved with personal communications network development, including the early cellular technology development.
"I think the current technology is pushing in the direction that PCNs are becoming more attractive," Cox said.
Current technological challenges involve improving access to the telecommunications system, integrating the radio system with the land line system, improving the ability to use the low wattage radio waves in and around buildings (buildings tend to absorb radio waves) and reducing the complexities involved with processing signals, Cox said.
Scott Morris, a vice president with McCaw Cellular Communications, said regulators will have to take a whole new approach regarding personal communications networks. He said traditional cost-based regulation used for land line systems will not be applicable to the PCN industry.
"I think the (telecommunications) industry is realizing that there is a large segment of the population that relishes mobile communications," Morris said. "Technology is now allowing us to satisfy that demand."
Morris noted that technology improvements have not only made telephones available in cars and other vehicles but is on the verge of making pedestrian telecommunications systems practical. He said the challenge now is to meet consumer demand to incorporate all telecommunications needs into a single, lightweight device that contains all needed functions.
And, to meet the full potential of PCNs, the new systems will have to be fully integrated with existing telecommunications facilities, especially the land line networks.
Morris said the challenge to regulators will be to step back and look at the new individual services in terms of how the providers integrate the systems with the existing networks.
Charles Parsley, assistant vice president for Southwestern Bell, St. Louis, said public service commissions should focus on the consumer - how the service impacts the consumer - not on the process of regulation.