'Fixed Wireless' Brings Cell Service to Analog JacksBy Jason Levitt | Posted 2004-10-26 Email Print
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Telular is testing the U.S. waters with a cell-phone-to-landline box. It's done quite well selling to countries that don't have the landline penetration of the United States.
With all of the advances in computer and wireless technology over the past 20 years, you'd think that landline telephone systems—sometimes referred to as the "Plain Old Telephone System" (POTS)—would have vanished by now. But despite the uptake in cell phone users, the vast majority of homes and businesses depend on copper wire for telephone service, just as they have for the past 50-plus years.
Slowly, though, things are changing. Cell phone coverage and equipment have improved to the point where there is less difference between the quality of cell networks and the POTS. Emergency 911 service, previously difficult to use on wireless, is also comparable to landline quality. Consumers are reacting, and the number of households and businesses that are completely wireless is growing.
Cashing in on this nascent trend are companies such as Telular Corp.,which offers, among other things, a line of "fixed wireless" products that make it fairly trivial for homes and businesses to take advantage of cellular wireless service from the comfort of their existing analog telephone jacks.
The term "fixed wireless" means just that—wireless appliances that sit on a desk or in a closet instead of being carried around in your hand like a cell phone. The emerging class of "fixed wireless" appliances are black boxes and desktop phones that use cell phone carriers such as Sprint, Verizon, Cingular and T-Mobile to provide voice service for your home or business.
I recently reviewed one of Telular's units, a "Fixed Wireless Terminal," which is a fancy name for a cell phone built into a small black box. But unlike handheld cell phones, the Telular unit—the "Phonecell SX5e GSM/GPRS Fixed Wireless Terminal" to be exact—is optimized to sit on a table instead of being carried around.
The roughly 7-by-2-by-8-inch box transmits with 1 and 2 watt power on the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) 900, 1800 and 1900 bands. It has a TNC antenna connector with a fat dipole antenna, which gives it better range than any handheld cell phone.
But just like any cell phone, when you purchase a Telular unit, you have to go to your local cell service store and have your unit "activated" with cell service and a phone number (Telular has service agreements with AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint in the United States and is working on Verizon).
From AT&T Wireless' point of view, the unit is just another cell phone, and thus it uses a standard cell phone agreement. That means the unit can be a second phone on an existing cell phone plan, which can make it fairly economical to own and use. Begging comparison with handheld GSM cell phones, the unit even has a little slot where you can insert your GSM SIM card.
Three sentences of installation directions
The unit is designed to either enhance or completely replace your POTS landline, and it does either with aplomb. (Telular also sells a PBX version of the unit, suitable for connection to the trunk or extension side of your office's PBX system). In fact, the installation sheet for this product is about three sentences long.You first disconnect your existing telephone service, either by pulling the plug on the network interface box on the outside of your home or business, or by calling up the phone company and having them discontinue service. You then plug a standard RJ-11 telephone plug into one of your phone jacks and the other end into the Telular box.
The Telular box uses patented technology to provide dial-tone service to all of your existing telephones (as many as five handsets). Really, that's all there is to it, unless you want to use your cell service provider's GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) data capabilities, which are accessible by plugging your PC into the nine-pin serial port on the unit.
The unit comes with a little Windows tool to set up this capability. I tested it and was able to get 56kbps modem-like speeds over AT&T's GPRS service.
Since there are no buttons on the box to configure it, the unit relies on a connected POTS handset and a set of keycodes for configuring the unit. Like any cell phone, you can use your cell service provider's call-waiting, voice mail and most other services. Unlike a traditional cell phone, there are no games, downloadable ringers or other features dependent on a screen or internal multimedia support.
So, if the Telular unit is so easy to install and can effectively replace your existing landlines without forcing you to buy new telephones for your home or office, then why isn't it more popular? The main reason is price. The Telular units sell for about $600 and, unlike cell phones which are heavily subsidized by the cellular service providers, the Telular units aren't subsidized. The cell service providers aren't providing discount deals to entice consumers.
There is also a philosophical spending challenge to overcome—the cost and usage of cell service isn't always a good deal for home or business users who are used to unlimited local calling and free incoming calls. With the advent of VOIP, though, the idea of replacing landlines with alternatives is becoming more common.
Telular, which holds several critical patents in the cell-phone-to-landline space, has done quite well selling to countries that don't have the landline penetration of the United States. "We are very well-known in 130 countries around the world," says Jeff Krevitt, senior vice president of marketing at Telular. "But we're not as well-known in the U.S. because the market just hasn't been there for fixed wireless."
Telular's technology is licensed by several of the U.S. sellers of cell-phone-to-landline products, such as Cell Socket,a cell phone docking cradle that connects your cell phone to a POTS handset.
Solidifying Telular's IP portfolio in this market space are three recent patent awards including patent No. 6,778,824, which describes a Bluetooth connection between a cell phone and a landline; and patents Nos. 6,775,522 and 6,785,517, which are for connecting landline telephone systems to cell networks.
Telular is in a good position to capitalize on any movement away from landlines to cell networks, if such a mass exodus occurs, but there are other potential competitors on the horizon.
Broadband providers are looking toward the emerging 802.16 standard to coalesce into WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access), the broadband cousin to Wi-Fi. With WiMaxin place, wireless grid networks in cities using VOIP could become a viable alternative to existing cell carriers.