Vince Kelly is spending a lot of time lately trying to convince officials at the Homeland Security Department that he's got the solution, or at least part of it, to their emergency communication problems.
Kelly, chief executive of Alexandria-based USA Mobility Inc., has been lobbying tech officials at the agency, telling them that his firm's technology is quick, portable, cheap, and is more likely than the cellular phone system to stay on air during a bad storm or other catastrophe. The technology, by the way, is called a pager.
This week the 9/11 Commission gave the federal government a failing grade for not freeing up enough radio spectrum for first responders. Wireless networks went down during the recent hurricanes and debate has boiled up again about how best to connect police officers, ambulance drivers and government officials during major emergencies.
Kelly's company, which controls 61 percent of the nation's paging market, does not have any contract proposals pending with the government right now. But he insists that agencies like Homeland Security and the Treasury Department should consider pagers as a still viable technology as they begin evaluating multibillion-dollar emergency communications proposals from some of the country's major government contractors.
Developed in the 1960s, the old-fashioned pager may not be as versatile or cutting edge as a BlackBerry or Web-enabled camera phone, he concedes. But he also said that it's more reliable in a crisis, able to send short messages both ways, and could be a cost-efficient backup system after more advanced networks fail.
Pagers operate on a different network than cellular phones. Compared with the wireless system, Kelly said that paging transmitters are more abundant, usually higher off the ground, and broadcast a more powerful signal. When a message is being sent to a particular pager, the signal is relayed through multiple transmitters so that even if some are damaged, the message will likely still get through. The paging network was built with greater redundancy, Kelly said, partly because so many companies were competing in the market during its heyday in the 1990s.
"Pagers just work better over a big geographic footprint," Kelly says. "You can get a message in a bunker with a pager. A hurricane can go through and you'll get the message with a pager."
There are limitations -- and skeptics.
Messages sent by pager must be relatively short, compared with the prolific BlackBerry, for example, and the interaction is not nearly as fast as talking on the phone.
Officials in the cell phone industry, meanwhile, see little advantage in the device that was once a cutting edge accoutrement hanging from the belt of emergency officials, doctors and teenage poseurs.
Jim Gerace, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, said his company's network is as reliable as that of any paging company.
"There are overlaps from cellular antenna to cellular antenna, so that if one of our antennas goes down, particularly in the city, that area is going to be served by another antenna," Gerace said.
Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications Inc., a Bethesda telecom research firm, said the idea of adopting pagers as a component of an emergency communication system is "intriguing," but may be a hard sell because the technology is perceived as outdated.
The technology is "reliable enough," he said, as long as the network of transmitters and antennae have been well maintained.
USA Mobility was formed a year ago after Alexandria-based Metrocall Holdings Inc. merged with rival paging firm Arch Wireless Inc. of Westborough, Mass. Both companies had recently been through bankruptcy proceedings because the individual consumers who comprised most of the industry's 45 million subscribers in 1999 quickly abandoned the technology for cell phones.
Today the company continues to lose customers as consumer holdouts finally switch to cell phones or BlackBerrys. The vast majority of the firm's 5.1 million subscribers now come from companies that don't want the expense of giving each employee a cell phone, but still need to keep in contact. Third-quarter profit fell to $355,000 (1 cent) from $6.7 million the previous year. While the firm's revenue rose to $151.9 million from $109.4 million, growth was fueled in part by sales of the very cell phones and BlackBerrys that have hurt the pager business: The company acts as a reseller for Sprint Nextel, Palm and other telecom companies.
But USA Mobility is also looking at other uses for the pager network, trying to sustain value out of its main asset. The firm recently signed a deal with two companies to provide meter-reading technology for electric and gas utilities. The idea is that readings could be sent digitally every hour, helping power companies charge different prices, depending on how much energy is used at peak and off-peak times. As for emergency responders, Kelly says the company still has a base of a million subscribers in state and local government who still rely on pagers. Convincing the Homeland Security Department to sign on, he admits, is going to take a bit more work.
"No, the Ballmer children don't have their Xbox 360 yet . . . unfortunately, thanks to the wonders of Sarbanes-Oxley, management does not get a free Xbox 360 anymore," Steve Ballmer, chief executive of Microsoft Corp., told a crowd of 500 local technology executives who gathered at the Capital Hilton yesterday to hear him speak.
Sarbanes-Oxley has been blamed for a lot of things, but the deprivation of Steve Ballmer's kids is certainly a new one.
"If I get an XBox 360 from the company, that's income to me, and it's got to be disclosed," he said. "And our audit committee decided it wasn't worth it."
Thankfully, Santa doesn't answer to the same regulators.
Ellen McCarthy writes about the local tech scene. Her e-mail is email@example.com.