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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PCS technology is already outdated.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

$116 billion."

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

excitement."

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."

World PCS, 29 Emmons Drive, Building G-30, Princeton

08540. Steve Lam, senior vice president. 609-419-0082; fax, 609-419-0076.

— Barbara Figge Fox


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