Column: Everyone's talking about PCS

Telecom and BellSouth are both talking about launching PCS but just what is it that they're talking about?

With both Telecom and BellSouth making moves into PCS (personal communications services) it seems a good idea to pause and try to define just what PCS is.

It’s a tricky question. Taken broadly, PCS encompasses the already commonplace mobile telephone, and indeed BellSouth’s strategic marketing manager, Leslie Preston, says that the company is to all intents and purposes already in the PCS business.

The company tends to use lower-case “pcs” and take a broad approach to the definition.

“PCS is used interchangeably whether people are talking about a service or a technology,” says Mike Reynolds, BellSouth’s general manager of corporate development. It’s all in what it means to you--what you include in PCS is only limited by your imagination.”

Overseas, particularly in the United States, one of the drivers of PCS is the almost saturated usage of existing cellular networks. The second spur is that PCS is likely to be cheaper, and is seen as a way of reaching the large portion of the market that hasn’t invested in mobile telephony.

Indeed, PCS is often seen as a sort of “mobile phone-plus”, with sceptics claiming that the anagram stands for “prettymuch cellular service”.

Conceptually, this contains a grain of truth. The main shift was produced by the mobile phone, which moved the emphasis from connecting geographic locations to connecting people. All PCS does is add data, paging and messaging services--all accessible on a lightweight handset--to the mix.

To give you an idea just how lightweight such devices might be, Ericsson last month launched its PCS 1900 digital system in the US, offering voice, paging, text messaging and wireless data over handsets weighing less than 0.2kg.

The main thing that’s going to hook new users, apart from the added-value services, is that PCS infrastructure is comparatively cheap to maintain, meaning carriers can offer services at little more than the current cost of the plain old telephone service.

And overseas, at least, that’s providing another opportunity for start-up telecomms providers. Instead of going for the international business market though, as most of the new entrants have here, the business opportunity with PCS is local telephone services.

With the availability of PCS services that offer cheap, fixed radio access, and the still-sluggish progress to competition in the local loop here, it will be interesting to see if anyone is game enough to pick up this particular niche.

The snag, as it so often is in New Zealand, is likely to be the low population base. But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t see an enterprising operator or three claiming this particular niche in metropolitan areas.

(Hosking is Computerworld’s telecommunications specialist. He can be emailed at rob_hosking@idg.com.)

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