APC: First to Market With PCS?

"Pioneering" technology may solve major PCS headache

Personal communications services promise to transform us into a nation of Captain Kirks as we whip out our wallet-sized communicators and boldly call from places that no one has called from before.

But to achieve this Star Trekian telecom capability, the would-be purveyors of PCS need to overcome a raft of technological, financial and political hurdles. A Bethesda, Md., firm hopes to help PCS providers skirt one of PCS' thorniest problems, microwave incumbent relocation (see WT, April 27), and in the process become the nation's first operating PCS system.

The spectrum set aside by the Federal Communications Commission for these next-generation wireless voice and data services are already occupied by utilities and others, and PCS licensees are responsible for relocating these incumbents elsewhere on the spectrum. Problem is, the relocation process could take more than half a dozen years in the worst-case scenario -- and time is a commodity PCS wanna-bes can ill-afford.

Enter American Personal Communications Inc., one of three companies designated as PCS "pioneers" by the FCC for their technological contributions. APC's contribution is a technology it calls PathGuard, based on frequency agile sharing technology, or FAST, which permits PCS carriers to share spectrum with incumbents while negotiating their departure.

APC spokeswoman Ann Phillips said the company spent five years and $40 million developing PathGuard from scratch, which fits inside a 19-inch box. Besides allowing PCS carriers and incumbents to cohabit spectrum, she said, PathGuard lets carriers measure signals to determine which microwave links must be moved first and which can wait.

"PCS providers will be able to immediately deploy their systems while clearing the microwave paths through a negotiation process," said Scott Schelle, APC's CEO, whose father and APC chairman, Wayne Schelle, founded Cellular One.

Tom Stroup, president of Columbia Spectrum Management, a firm that handles microwave incumbent relocation on behalf of PCS licensees, is also enthusiastic about PathGuard.

"Any option we have in getting our clients up and running sooner will make our job easier," said Stroup.

However, according to Ira Brodsky, president of Wilmette, Ill.-based Datacomm Research, PathGuard is neither new nor particularly revolutionary.

"It's not what you would call a breakthrough, it's a new application of a technology that already existed; they didn't invent frequency agile sharing technology," Brodsky said.

Phillips acknowledged that other frequency sharing technologies exist, but none are designed specifically for PCS. And regardless of just how pioneering PathGuard really is, Brodsky added, it probably will prove useful to PCS licensees desperate to get into business.

"I suspect it was deemed worthwhile because it focused on coexistence with incumbents, which is a difficult issue for the FCC, which wanted to encourage and reward efforts to simplify this problem," said Brodsky.

Others find it worthwhile as well. Stanford Telecom of Sunnyvale, Calif., is already manufacturing the device for APC, Phillips said, and Ericsson, Nortel, and Motorola have all agreed to license PathGuard, which they will market to PCS carriers.

APC, however, will not profit from its patent, and is licensing PathGuard at cost, a decision Phillips said the company made before it realized it would have to pay for its license, the result of a rules change in mid-stream by the FCC. As a result, APC paid $102 million for its hitherto free license.

"It will be a business on the side for Stanford and Ericsson and Nortel. We are not in the business of selling PathGuard," said Phillips.

But because of its pioneer status, APC was guaranteed a license and permitted to skip the auctions, allowing it to begin deploying its PCS network, which is scheduled to become operational by the fall. APC's territory encompasses Washington, D.C, Maryland, half of Virginia and parts of West Virginia.

In addition, APC has some high-profile, deep-pocketed partners in the form of the Sprint/Tele-Communications Inc./Comcast Corp./Cox Communications consortium, which owns 49 percent of APC. This venture, commonly called Sprint-Cable, will benefit from APC's head start to hone its PCS strategy, using the company's territory as a techno-marketing laboratory for its planned nationwide service. Although APC won't profit from PathGuard, it will market its services under the "Sprint" brand name.

"We are pleased to bring the name identity and nationwide presence of the Sprint-Cable venture to the Washington-Baltimore area," said Wayne Schelle. Indeed.

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