With a ceremonial first call from Vice President Al Gore in Washington to Mayor Kurt Schmoke in Baltimore yesterday, the nation's first personal communications services network launched its digital challenge to the cellular telephone industry.
American Personal Communications Inc., a Bethesda-based company founded by cellular pioneer Wayne N. Schelle, inaugurated the wireless PCS network at simultaneous press conferences in both cities.
The Baltimore-Washington system, which will market its services under the brand name Sprint Spectrum, is the first of what is expected to be a nationwide network of wireless PCS providers.
Sprint Telecommunications Venture, a partnership of Sprint Corp. and three large cable TV companies, owns 49 percent of APC. The Sprint venture was the largest single buyer at a government-run spectrum auction that raised $7.7 billion early this year for PCS licenses.
Neither Mr. Gore nor Mr. Schmoke uttered the words "what hath God wrought" yesterday, but both men noted that a long-ago message between the same two cities ushered in the Age of Telecommunications in 1844.
Mangling history somewhat, Mayor Schmoke asserted that the first telegraph message went from Baltimore to Washington and jokingly told the vice president that "we appreciate that you're finally returning our message." In fact, the famous four words were first sent by Samuel F.B. Morse in the U.S. Capitol to an associate at Baltimore's Mount Clare Station. The same message was promptly retransmitted back to Washington.
The PCS launch will be supported by an aggressive marketing campaign including three television commercials starring Sprint spokeswoman Candice Bergen of "Murphy Brown" fame. APC Vice President Paul M. Argay said the company will spend more than $5 million to market the PCS network before the end of 1996.
PCS has been described as the "next generation" of cellular service, but the basic technology is not radically different except for the fact that PCS networks will be all-digital from the start. Most cellular phones in use today use analog signals, which are more vulnerable to dropped calls and static.
In addition to launching its service, APC announced a price structure that appears to undercut the rates offered by the two cellular network operators in the region, Cellular One and Bell Atlantic Nynex Mobile Systems.
Monthly charges for Sprint Spectrum run from $15 to $150, depending upon the number of free minutes in the plan. The per-minute rates for peak-time use range from 25 cents to 31 cents. Off-peak rates range from 10 cents to 31 cents.
In comparison, Cellular One's regionwide monthly plans range from $21.95 to $159 and its peak-use rates range from 29 cents to 39 cents. Cellular One, whose rate structure is more comparable to APC's than Bell Atlantic Nynex's, is cheaper during off-peak hours with rates ranging from 5 cents to 19 cents.
The Sprint Spectrum service includes several free features that cellular subscribers must pay for, including caller identification and an "answering machine" service. The PCS handsets also have the capability to receive numeric paging at no extra cost.
Between now and Jan. 1, the cost of PCS handsets ranges from $99 for an Ericcson model to $199 for a Motorola unit, Mr. Argay said. Those costs are high compared with the giveaway prices charged for analog cellular phones, but they are offset somewhat by the fact that APC charges no activation fee. Cellular One charges $35 and Bell Atlantic $60 for activating a single phone.