Fading Out

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By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 19, 2008

On Feb. 18, Jay Sincavage will make one last phone call to say goodbye.

He'll bid farewell to the network technology that powered his first cellphone, an old StarTac -- once considered the technologist's model of choice -- that's bulkier than his wallet. At midnight that day, wireless networks across the country will start shutting down the old analog networks that launched the cellphone business 25 years ago. Now, with the vast majority of the country's quarter-billion cellphone users calling and texting over digital networks, only about 1 million customers still use analog networks.

The Federal Communications Commission authorized carriers to phase out those networks to free more airwaves for digital services. So the non-tech-savvy who haven't upgraded their phones in several years, as well as people in areas too remote to receive digital signals, could end up without a lifeline.

Sincavage, who lives in Sterling, plans to summon power to his StarTac and, with a few dozen other analog loyalists, make a final call with the obsolete technology.

"Maybe we'll overload the network and make it crash one last time, for old times' sake," Sincavage said.

The demise of a mainstream technology often happens under the radar, as companies and consumers embrace new formats. The record player and the tape recorder faded gradually. DVD rentals phased out VHS tapes. Now the CD appears to be making a slow exit, replaced by digital and downloadable music.

For the past seven years, mobile-phone companies have pushed people to upgrade their analog cellphones by offering discounts and rebates on new digital phones. Each successive generation of the network was more efficient, sending more calls, pictures, videos, and text messages over the airwaves. Maintaining the old networks became an expensive chore.

The cellular switch-off is the first phase of a larger transition to digital technology that will culminate next year with the end of analog television signals.

Other widely used technologies also rely on analog cellular networks. Older versions of OnStar, the communications system installed in many cars, will stop working next month. General Motors, which owns OnStar, said some cars made as recently as 2005 cannot be upgraded.

About 400,000 security systems use analog networks as back-ups to land lines, according to the Alarm Industry Communications Committee. In homes without land lines, the analog network is the only connection.

Sincavage, for example, recently paid $250 to have the ADT alarm system in his dry-cleaning business upgraded to digital.

AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Alltel say less than 1 percent of their customers use analog services, which the companies plan to phase out over the next year. Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile already use all-digital networks, but their customers may be affected if they roam on other carriers' analog networks.

Over the past year, Verizon Wireless has been contacting thousands of customers using analog phones to offer them digital models. Spokeswoman Debi Lewis said the company hasn't reached some of those people.

"The people most at risk are glove-box users -- the people who bought a phone 10 years ago to use in case of an emergency," Lewis said. "Pretty soon, those phones won't work anymore, and we want to let them know."

Analog signals translate voice communications through a series of radio waves that require a lot of airwave capacity. Digital signals convert voice and data -- e-mail, text messages, photos -- into bits of data that can be compressed, allowing the information to travel more quickly and requiring less capacity.

While digital signals are considered more reliable than their analog predecessors, they don't travel as far and may not reach sparsely populated areas, such as mountains and deserts.

Analog signals rescued Jorge Torralba when he broke his foot while hiking in a remote area east of Seattle. Unable to get a digital signal with his cellphone, a friend climbed a nearby hill and found an analog network for just long enough to call Torralba's wife in Portland, Ore. She gave their location to a rescue squad, which picked up the hikers in a helicopter.

"I was bummed out that we're going to be losing analog because when you're out in the middle of the woods, that's the only way to get help," he said. "I know digital's the way to go, but analog is a lifesaver." Andrew Moreau, vice president of corporate communications for Alltel, which serves many rural areas, said analog towers will be replaced by digital ones before the service is shut off.

Still, some analog-users are afraid they'll be left in a lurch.

Cody Toy lives in Rodeo, Calif., a tiny town tucked between mountains and the Pacific Ocean, and still uses analog signals for every call he makes on his cellphone. He's concerned that digital towers won't keep up with the demise of analog.

"Digital is like . . . a highway with potholes . . . and analog . . . is the tar that . . . patches the holes," Toy said over an analog cellphone, interrupted by frequent bouts of static. "It's good for city slickers . . . but bad for folks in the boonies."

Roger Entner, senior vice president for the communications sector at IAG Research, said he expects few people to mourn analog networks since most new devices do not use the technology.

"It's a nostalgic event because it's the first wireless standard to be put underground," he said. "But nobody will show up at the funeral."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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