From the August 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

A growing percentage of business isn't conducted in boardrooms or offices anymore. Today, due in large part to the growth of wireless communications, business is being done anywhere and everywhere--in the airport, on the golf course, or even in the back seat of a taxi.

Wireless technologies like pagers and cellular phones used to be a luxury for small-business owners. No more. Considering the sharp declines in pricing and the improved quality of recent years, wireless communications are a viable option for every small company. "Wireless is coming to the masses,' says Iain Gillott, director of wireless and broadband networking with IDC/Link, a technology research firm in New York City. "More and more people are buying it.'

Clearly, a main benefit of using wireless products is increased accessibility. "Before we had to find a pay phone or go for hours out of the loop,' explains Blake Davidson, CFO of Power Research, a small industrial chemical manufacturer in Newport Beach, California, which began using L.A. Cellular's SmartDigital service in February. "But now we're constantly in contact.'

Good Connections

While there's a perception that paging isn't necessary anymore because of digital cellular services that offer similar functions, there is still an important place for paging in many small businesses. Pagers are useful for companies with simple transmission needs--those that don't require in-depth communications but just want to stay in touch. Today's pagers relay messages in a variety of ways and deliver them in a reliable manner.

Two-way paging: One of the biggest complaints about paging is the inability to respond to urgent messages. Two-way paging eliminates that problem by allowing users to answer by hitting a button and sending back a simple alphanumeric message (see below) or a variety of pre-programmed messages. While coverage is limited in most markets except for major metropolitan areas, two-way paging is becoming more commonplace.

Voice paging: Voice-paging service is also offered in limited areas. Voice paging works like a portable answering machine. Usually, callers access an 800 number, enter a personal identification number and then leave a message that is forwarded to the voice pager. Pages are received in the caller's voice and can be listened to immediately or stored.

Alphanumeric: These are the most commonly used types of pagers and are useful tools for small businesses. Alphanumeric pagers use a type of memory that stores both letters and numbers. Because of text capabilities that allow callers to relay simple messages, the need to call back for more details is often eliminated. When using an alphanumeric pager heavily, keep in mind it's easy to drain the battery in a few days.

Numeric: Numeric pagers support numbers only. Even so, giving out your pager number to clients or placing it on business cards is an effective way to stay in the loop.

Can We Talk?

There's a lot of confusion surrounding portable phone technology these days. New standards, multiple carriers and a wide array of new features are fueling misconceptions. However, if you have the time and persistence to sort through this mess, you'll find this technology has a lot more to offer than in years past.

Analog: The most popular trend in analog telephones is making them as small and as light as possible. Motorola's StarTAC (starting at $1,000 retail) is roughly the size of a pager and weighs just 3.1 ounces. Although these minuscule models are easy to carry, using them can be another story. You may find the small buttons difficult to use, and the pint-sized phones can sometimes be awkward to hold and speak into. Short battery life can also be a problem.

Digital: While analog cellular technology modulates radio signals to carry voices, digital technology sends data as zeroes and ones (bits), which allows more data to be sent during a call. As a result, users can benefit from a slew of new services--including paging, voice mail and caller ID--in one phone. Digital service isn't new: In the early 1990s, it suffered from complaints of hard-to-hear conversations. Today, however, carriers claim the problems have been ironed out, and digital service boasts better sound quality, longer battery life and more reliable service (although one interview for this story carried on a digital network was dropped five times).

There are two standards for digital phones. Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) sends calls immediately over the air; many service providers already support this standard. Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) breaks calls into coded bits and reassembles them at the other end. CDMA phones began hitting markets earlier this year, and support is becoming more widespread. Carriers claim CDMA offers high sound quality, although its merits are less well-known.

S (Personal Communications Services): While a relatively new player in the United States, PCS employs GSM (global standard mobile) digital technology that is standard in many countries. Similar to digital cellular phones, PCS' merits include long-lasting batteries and myriad services. Several carriers across the country are expected to roll out their PCS services in the coming months.

Carriers: Industry experts predict there will continue to be fierce competition among service providers in the coming months, making it a good time to sign up. Most are offering a slew of different plans; new pricing schedules are also being introduced. When evaluating a carrier, be sure to ask about coverage areas, to compare different plans and to read the fine print.

Up In The Air

What wireless system you use should depend on a variety of factors, including budget, work habits and travel expectations.

Wireless communications can be expensive. If you're on a tight budget, paging is more affordable, with pricing plans starting at just a few dollars a month. Because it's easy for one cellular user to rack up a few hundred dollars' worth of calls each month, the phone should be used to generate significant income, not to call home and ask what's for dinner. Because digital phones offer caller ID, one way to reduce costs (and wasted time) is to screen your calls and let the unwanted ones go straight to voice mail.

If you own a service-based business that relies heavily on customer service, a cellular phone could increase your response time. Or, if you work in an environment where you can't be bothered with talking on the phone, a pager could do just fine.

Travel habits are also key. If your business is local, your concerns are minimal. But if you travel extensively, be sure your carrier has coverage in the areas you travel to. And remember, not all areas are served by digital service, so you'll need a dual-mode phone that switches from digital to analog.

Once you've chosen your technology, put a few policies in place. Explain to employees what portable phones should and should not be used for. Also, discuss your expectations for response time. If employees start handing out pager and cellular numbers and messages go unreturned, customers are liable to become even more frustrated than before.

Wireless communications have come a long way. Although problems still exist, if implemented correctly, this technology can make your life a lot easier.