The sun is setting on the United States' first national cellular phone technology, known as Advanced Mobile Phone Service (AMPS).
While for most this means farewell to a cell phone the size and weight of a brick, for others it could mean interference with hearing aids, an ineffective home alarm system or no cell phone reception in rural areas.
Under an FCC docket known as 01-108, cell phone companies will no longer be required to offer AMPS service starting in February 2008. Although the docket was introduced in 2002, some businesses are still complaining that there is not enough time to upgrade to newer technology. Some consumers are complaining they will lose their cell phone service.
Larger cell phone companies like Verizon Wireless have presumably wanted to ditch the AMPS service for many years because it amounts to an extra cost with no corresponding increase in business.
When the FCC mandated AMPS in the early 1980s, it was a way to lower the price of cell phones and cellular network service by standardizing the technology and forcing competition in every market.
The frequency bandwidth for cell phones in each market was divided into two equal parts. Then, two companies would bid on those halves.
By standardizing the technology, a consumer could travel around the country and still get service by "roaming" in another company's service area. It also allowed consumers to keep the same phone while switching service.
But today, it seems like the only person still using AMPS technology is Zack Morris on "Saved by the Bell" reruns. What were once some of the most coveted frequencies by telecommunications companies in the '80s are now some of their biggest financial drains.
"We conclude that it imposes costs and impedes spectral efficiency," states the FCC docket.
"We continue to consider the existence of a nationwide, compatible service to be a major goal for the cellular service. However, given the current competitive state of mobile telephony, we conclude that consumers will continue to have the ability to roam outside of their home markets even in the absence of the analog requirement."
Today's digital cell phones use higher frequencies which mean they have a shorter range. But the upside is that, coupled with digital technology, the more modern service can handle a larger volume of simultaneous calls with improved voice quality.
It also means consumers can transfer data, such as e-mails, text messages and videos. Almost every cell phone customer in the U.S. uses the newer digital service.
Jeff Nelson, spokesman for Verizon Wireless said he didn't know exactly how many people still rely on AMPS but insisted, "It's a very, very small percentage of customers."
Many alarm systems in the U.S. send warning messages to fire, police and hospital emergency workers using AMPS. Although the FCC released the docket in 2002, the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA) claims their member companies need more time to upgrade their existing AMPS systems to digital alarms.
"We are talking to the FCC in the hopes of getting an extension," NBFAA Executive Director Merlin Guilbeau said in a prepared statement.
But with 16 months until the sunset of this technology, there is no plan for an extension, said FCC spokeswoman Chelsea Fallon.
ADT, the country's largest security system company is sending a formal request for an extension to the AMPS sunset to the FCC tomorrow.
"While we understand the need to migrate to digital services, doing so in the deadline timeframe is unrealistic given the lack of adequate equipment supply from manufacturers. This limits the ability of security companies to begin the aggressive scheduling of swap-out installations required to meet the 2008 deadline." Phillip McVey, vice president, Business Operations, ADT North America, said in a prepared statement.
Although a handful of companies already offer digital alarm service, on a nationwide scale, it might not work, ADT claimed. The FCC had no comment on ADT's letter.
"While mobile phones are offered to consumers in multiple digital technologies, the manufacturers of alarm equipment offer only GSM products," according to the ADT statement. "There are areas of the United States where GSM service will not function and products on other digital technologies, such as CDMA, are required but not yet available."
However, a quick look at a large GSM map such as Cingular's coverage map versus that of Verizon's (CDMA), will show that few places have that have GSM, do not have CDMA.
Another concern is that there is not enough equipment or manpower to upgrade many of these systems by 2008.
"There are three-quarters of a million to a million systems that use this system (AMPS)," NBFAA president George Gunmann said.
With Congress in recess, it may be a while before any decision is made, Gunman said.
"We have been telling our members that they need to be prepared to have all their alarms be digital very soon," said NBFAA spokesman Jason Smith.
Hear Me Now?
Other industries have better adapted to the five-year sunset. The higher frequency broadcast of modern cell phones tends to interfere with hearing aids while AMPS does not.
"Some people describe it as a Bumble Bee buzzing in their ear," said Pam Mason, spokeswoman for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. "Others say it sounds like a motor boat."
According to VerizonWireless.com, "a hearing aid operates by using a microphone to pick up sound waves in the air and converts the sound waves to electrical signals. The signals are then amplified as needed and converted back to audible sounds for the user to hear. The hearing aid's microphone, however, does not always work well in conjunction with audio devices like headsets and telephone handsets. The acoustic connection made between the audio device and the hearing aid is poor and creates distortions in the sound. In addition, the surrounding noise in the area of the user is often picked up by the hearing aid and interferes with the desired audio."
Mason said there have been great strides to fix this problem. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has worked with both manufacturers of cell phones and hearing aids to offer a solution for those customers with hearing deficiencies.
Cell phones and hearing aids now label their "M rating." The M rating tells how well that particular device will cancel interference while using a modern cell phone. For both cell phones and hearing aids, customers should make sure they both have an M rating of at least three.
Mason said customers should make sure the combined M rating of the two products is at least six. For example, she said if a customer has a hearing aid with an M rating of two, he or she should buy a cell phone with an M rating of at least four.
Many of the cell phones listed on Verizon's website have an M rating of three or four. Regardless of the listed M rating, Mason said customers should go to the store to try out the cell phone before buying it.
Mason said thanks to the M rating system, the termination of AMPS should not affect consumers with hearing aids.
The final group that might be affected by this change is consumers in very remote areas. Since AMPS has significantly more range, areas such as the entire Gulf of Mexico and the Appalachian Mountains can have service.
However, industry professionals don't believe that this voluntary sunset will dramatically change service for customers in rural regions.
According to the FCC docket, "With the introduction of digital services by PCS (Personal Communications Service) providers, cellular licensees are likely to find it competitively necessary to install or expand their digital network, regardless of whether or not the analog requirement is retained."
Most of the regional rural carriers offer both AMPS and digital service already, Tim Raven, executive director of the Rural Cellular Association, said.
"It is inevitable that the rural areas will become all-digital," Raven said. "The problem is that some customers like their old analog phones and our companies want to cater to their needs."
Although it would seem to be financially smart for the large cell phone companies to disconnect the AMPS service as soon as possible, Nelson, speaking for Verizon Wireless, said he does not know when or if Verizon plans to shut down AMPS.
"I know we have not notified customers yet," he said.
Nelson said it's possible the company will give customers in rural areas cell phones that work with both analog and digital signals and wean them off the AMPS service gradually.
In short, this has been a slow, five-year sunset for an aging technology and although in some areas it may still exist for years to come, for most consumers that ringing sound will be coming from their shiny new digital cell phones.