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This article by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on August 11, 1999. All rights reserved.
A Wireless Approach For the Last Mile
It may be a long shot, but theoretically World PCS could
grow to be the wireless version of Cisco Systems. Whereas Cisco develops
and manufactures voice and Internet access infrastructure equipment
for the conventional wired telephone market, World PCS does that for
a segment of the wireless market. It has expanded to 4,000 feet at
Princeton Commerce Center on Emmons Drive.
PCS stands for Personal Communications Services and is a second generation
digital technology. Called wireless local loop, it is used for the
"last mile" or "local loop," because it links the
major telephone company’s base station to the home.
"Long distance and switching technology has changed dramatically
in last 50 years, but the local loop is still the old technology,"
says Steve Lam, senior vice president. "Still, the old pair of
twisted wires is coming to the home. We want to take wireless to the
mass market so everybody can afford it."
They may look alike, but wireless PCS phones are not the same as cellular
phones. In contrast to the limited range of wireless PCS phones, which
can range only one-half mile from a transmitter or base station, cellular
phones have a very wide range and their signals are transmitted by
towers that can be up to 3 miles apart. Cellular phones are for "road
warriors," says Lam, whereas wireless PCS is most appropriate
for use in a special neighborhood, such as on a college campus or
in developing countries. It resembles the cordless home phone, except
that the base station is outside and shared by many users. "It
has the advantage of the cell phone without the cost," says Lam.
Potential big customers are the more than 3,000 United States colleges
and universities, where students might pay just $40 monthly for microcell
handset plus 1,000 free minutes to anywhere on campus and the surrounding
town. Not only is this much cheaper than cellular, but for Internet
use, at 28.8 Kbs per second, it is faster than cellular, which transmits
at only 9.6 Kbs. By next year the data speed should be up to at least
200 Kbs per second.
Competitors claim that though it might work better than twisted wires,
PCS technology is already outdated. "We experimented with that
concept 10 years ago," says a spokesperson for Bell Atlantic.
"The reason why it works in third world countries is that they
have not been exposed to the grander scene of cellular. Here, the
public is already educated that a cellular phone can be used anywhere.
Customers thought they had a full-featured cellular phone and were
frustrated when they got out of range and it didn’t work."
"We are not competing with the cellular phone but are targeting
this as a super cordless phone," responds Lam, "for a campus,
a large construction site, or a small town."
Nevertheless, World PCS aims to sell its hardware and software infrastructure
to CLECs, competitive local exchange carriers spawned by the Telecommunications
Act of 1996. Thanks to this act these CLECs can enter any telephone
market. Any affordable market, that is. The PCS phones require a base
station that costs just $2,000, is the size of a notebook, and can
be put on an existing pole. That is significantly cheaper than erecting
a tall cellular tower, so Lam figures the PCS solution could therefore
be attractive to the CLECs.
World PCS and its competitors — which include many of the major
companies — are also marketing this kind of infrastructure to
developing countries, where the market is plenty big. Lam quotes experts
who believe that by the year 2002 seven percent of telephone users
will be using wireless local loop: "More than 80 percent will
be using it in developing countries like Asia and a big chunk will
be in China. The money spent in wireless local loop by 2006 will be
World PCS is not the only Princeton company trying to make its mark
in wireless technology. Nettech Systems, a 45-person company on Alexander
Road, is a major player in the wireless market, but with a big difference;
Nettech provides software rather than an infrastructure, says Tamara
Kanoc, a spokesperson. It provides tools for applications that will
communicate over wireless networks: field service, public safety,
sales force automation, and wireless information services. For instance,
it helps Georgia-based Transcore in providing weather and traffic
information for people with two-way pagers.
World PCS is rooted in a company, World Communications Group, that
was founded three years ago to sell OEM and systems integrations products
to China. Then WCG got into the long distance market in the United
States by issuing phone cards and getting a link to China. World PCS
is a wholly owned subsidiary of World Communications Group (WCG),
based in Hazlet and headed by CEO Peter Wang. Recently World PCS was
spun off to be independent, and it has just opened an office in Atlanta,
where James Shyr, the president, is based.
Half of World PCS’s 20 employees work in Princeton. Although Lam is
getting a couple of engineers from company outpost in Hangzhou, near
Shanghai, he is looking in Princeton for embedded software engineers
to develop telecommunication protocols and network management.
Originally from Hong Kong, Lam graduated from college in 1978, obtained
his master’s degree in the United Kingdom, and worked there for Plessey
Telecommunications, then one of the three biggest telecommunications
companies in the United Kingdom (it was bought by Siemens). In 1985
he came to the United States to work for Siemens Telecommunications
in Boca Raton and for Southwestern Bell Technologies in St. Louis.
He and his wife live in West Windsor and have two school-age children.
"I have been working for big corporations for almost 20 years
— British, German, American, and the last for a Japanese company,
Panasonic, in Princeton. Now I have to give it a try to be an entrepreneur
— raising money and hiring people," says Lam. "The reason
I wanted to come to the U.S. is that I wanted to be part of all this
West Coast workers, he has found, are more likely to see the advantages
of working for a start-up than those in the east. New Jersey workers
are more ready to choose security over stock options. "It’s not
like in Silicon Valley, where you talk with your neighbor about a
new company and get very excited," says Lam. "Here, people
have comfortable jobs with all the big corporations — Lucent,
Bellcore, and AT&T. We need to build the awareness that to start a
company is exciting."
08540. Steve Lam, senior vice president. 609-419-0082; fax, 609-419-0076.
— Barbara Figge Fox
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