In Focus: Sunset for analog cellular?

After February 2008, cellular networks may discontinue providing analog mobile phone service (AMPS) due to the expiration of a key law. Currently, the Federal Communications Commission requires network providers such as Verizon and Cingular to provide AMPS, contrary to these companies’ preferences to use the wireless spectrum elsewhere. But in two years, nothing will prevent those AMPS lines from being disconnected.

Throughout the 1990s, and even today, many fleets depend on AMPS to have seamless, nationwide coverage between their office and their vehicles and drivers. As the sun sets on AMPS, mobile communications providers already are prepared to make the transition to 2008 and beyond.

Many startups in the 1990s stayed clear of AMPS altogether. For example, when Networkcar began in 1999, management decided to use the Mobitech data-only network for its fleet tracking and remote diagnostics monitoring system.

The Mobitech network does not provide coverage in rural areas, but if a vehicle strays from coverage, the onboard device continues to record GPS position and other vehicle performance data. Using store-and-forward functionality, the data is transmitted from the onboard unit to the office the moment the device returns to coverage.

“From our perspective, fleet managers want to see performance data once a day,” says Diego Brown, senior product engineer for Networkcar.

The growing footprint or coverage of high-speed digital networks is quickly replacing the need for mobile communications solutions to use AMPS. But while digital networks have grown rapidly, many rural areas remain covered only by AMPS.

The large networks – such as Verizon, Sprint and Cingular – have aggressively built out coverage of digital networks in metro areas and along major highways. These digital networks come in one of two varieties: CDMA and GSM. The data extensions 1xRTT and EVDO belong to the CDMA standard; and GPRS and EDGE belong to the GSM standard.

Still, a growing number of fleets use systems that connect to both digital and analog terrestrial networks. These “dual-mode” devices automatically switch between high-bandwidth CDMA coverage in urban areas, and AMPS when digital coverage is not available.

But experts say that even after the FCC law expires in 2008, not all wireless providers will drop AMPS coverage in rural areas just because they can. Most likely, they will have a solid business case for keeping AMPS service in rural areas.

“In general, our expectation is that in urban areas, AMPS will be turned off,” says Bob Schoenfield, senior vice president of business development for Aeris.net. “In rural areas and highways, the smaller regional carriers will continue to carry AMPS for another few years (beyond 2008). There are economical reasons to do that.”

Aeris.net is an integrated analog and digital network provider used by several leading mobile communication providers in the transportation industry. PeopleNet Communications and Qualcomm (for its T2 Trailer Tracking solution) are two such customers.

In late 2004, PeopleNet launched a next-generation, dual-mode platform called g3.

PeopleNet’s previous platform, g2x, uses Aeris.net’s MicroBurst network and is completely analog. The g2x still is used by many customers, but as the company continues to develop new applications for the g3 platform that require more bandwidth and onboard processing power, management anticipates customers gradually will convert to the new platform in advance of 2008.

“To customers that have purchased the g2x, we are basically saying ‘upgrade when it’s right for you,’ ” says Brian McLaughlin, PeopleNet’s vice president of marketing. “There is no reason from a network perspective to change over right now.”

The g3 communicates primarily through CDMA and uses the Aeris.net analog MicroBurst network when CDMA is not available, McLaughlin says. The MicroBurst technology delivers an “always on” connection through the analog network that can deliver a packet of data from the vehicle to the office in 3 to 6 seconds, Schoenfield says.

Another dual-mode device used by many fleets incorporates terrestrial and satellite. GeoLogic Solutions has offered such a device since the early 1990s as part of its MobileMax system.

In October 2005, GeoLogic launched an upgrade option to MobileMax, namely Cingular’s Allover network (GSM/GPRS), that offers more speed and coverage for terrestrial communications, and thus lowers costs by minimizing the communications sent through satellite.

“Once our fleet is fully equipped with the Cingular GPRS capabilities in early 2006, we are projecting that as much as 95 percent of our messages will go over the GeoLogic terrestrial network,” says Dave Robinson of Southeastern Freight Lines, the first fleet to sign on to the upgrade. Robinson – vice president of MIS for the Lexington, S.C.-based carrier – also says the Cingular network delivers messages in 10 to 15 seconds, compared to three to five minutes for satellite messages.

Currently, there are no dual-mode GSM and analog devices, Schoenfield says. The wireless carriers using GSM/GPRS digital standards will have a more challenging time evolving AMPS into their future coverage, he says, because network providers in this arena already support multiple digital standards and need the AMPS spectrum for their digital networks.

For example, Cingular has announced it will discontinue providing analog after February 2008, says spokesperson John Kampfe. Its GPRS and high-speed EDGE networks have coverage in 14,000 cities and towns and 40,000 miles of interstate, and support coverage in rural areas through roaming agreements, Kampfe says.

Whether or not AMPS is still part of your mobile communications solution in 2008, you can bet that digital will be.