Latest high-tech machines can connect you to just about everything

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 16, 2000

Imagine the following scene. You are driving toward the Natchez-to-Vidalia, La., bridge. Before you know it, traffic has stopped. An accident ahead has trapped you. There’s no place to exit. You’re irritated; but the situation is not hopeless. You have work to do and information to seek. So you do it now. You pull out your cellular phone and get to work.

First you push a button for your e-mail messages. There are two, and you answer them quickly.

Then you send a couple of messages to people with whom you have appointments.

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The traffic has delayed you and you may be late. But you provide some information so that meetings might begin without you.

That done, you call up the menu on your cell phone to find your favorite Internet search engine. You choose Yahoo! and begin to look for information you had planned to find during the workday at the office.

As you continue your Internet search, a sound alerts you that you have a phone call. You answer and find that your family is having overnight guests during the weekend.

Your week is going to be hectic; so you call the caterer. The caterer e-mails some menus and prices. You complete that transaction, using your wireless Internet banking account to pre-pay.

That reminds you that you wanted to make a stock market transaction. You call up your account and buy the stock.

Meanwhile, a sound from the cell phone alerts you to check in with an information service to which you subscribe.

You learn an airline strike will make it highly likely that your reservations for next month’s trip will be questionable.

You contact the airline’s Web site to make some changes.

Meanwhile, the same service, seeing where you are, stuck on the bridge, tells you about a sale at your favorite department store a block from the foot of the bridge.

You make a note to stop there on the return trip from your meetings.

With that same service, you ask directions to the nearest florist so that you can select flowers to be delivered before the weekend.

That task done, you find traffic beginning to move again and you’re on your way to your appointments.

Does the scenario have a science fiction ring?

It shouldn’t. The technology exists and will begin to permeate the Natchez market during the next year, wireless technology experts predict.

&uot;The technology is almost unused in our area at this point,&uot; said Guy Stout of Vanguard Towers, who has worked in the wireless business for 10 years.

&uot;Within the next year, it will be commonplace.&uot;

Internet-connected wireless phones, pagers and personal digital assistants such as Palm are catching the eye of Natchez professionals, said Martin Lanneau, an Internet specialist at Britton & Koontz First National Bank.

However, many potential users are taking a wait-and-see attitude, he said.

&uot;In 2001, these devices will become more and more widely used,&uot; he said.

&uot;The computer won’t be on the desktop anymore; it’ll be anywhere and everywhere.&uot;

Lanneau cautions, however, that consumers should be aware of privacy and security issues as Internet capabilities expand.

In any Internet purchasing, the consumer should proceed with caution, dealing only with well-known, highly reputable companies.

With the advent of wireless Internet, the user should understand fully the system known as GPS.

The Global Positioning System provides a locating capability which in practical terms enables wireless phone users to employ the Enhanced 911 emergency plan.

However, some industry analysts worry that the system could be misused in a way that invades a user’s privacy.

Stout said the capabilities of the cell phones and other handheld wireless devices will be limited only by their sizes. The usefulness, however, has a wide range.

&uot;For example, a (utility) meter reader might drive down the street with one of these devices, read the meters from the car and even send the information straight to the billing office,&uot; he said.

Benefits for consumers are many, Stout said, predicting that wireless phones in a few years will be used as home phones.

&uot;The rates are almost competitive now,&uot; he said. &uot;There are plans now offering 1,500 to 2,000 minutes for $35 a month. I remember when it was $35 for 30 minutes.

&uot;Wireless simply is cheaper,&uot; he said. &uot;There are no cables, no phone lines.&uot;

What’s more, the technology now provides more security, as digital transmissions are &uot;non-replicatable and harder to intercept and decode.&uot;

Digital technology, as opposed to the older analog, two-way radio wireless technology, transmits messages faster and in many small pieces.

Thus this technology, taking up less space on the airwaves, allows wireless companies to serve more customers.

And, indeed, space for wireless technology has been a problem, Stout said.

Starting on Dec. 12, however, the Federal Communications Commission began auctioning additional space on the airwaves.

The result is expected to be better service for consumers as companies are able to fill in gaps in areas where service has been absent or inadequate.

Industry forecasters say within the next five years, as many as 148 million Americans will be cell phone users. About 90 million are wireless users today.

Perhaps more astounding are estimates that worldwide the number of wireless users is likely to be 1 billion by 2003.

One reason Natchez consumers may expect changes and new opportunities within the next year is that new wireless companies will be entering the local market, Stout said.

&uot;Large companies are coming to Natchez, such as Nextel, Sprint, PowerTel and Mercury,&uot; he said.

&uot;In six months we can expect more competitive programs and more options.&uot;

A tower that will serve needs of the main section of downtown Natchez still remains to be established, Stout said.

&uot;Cell phones won’t ring in places where there is not enough signal.&uot;

Wireless service is like any other utility, he said. Towers are part of the service.

&uot;It’s just the same as having to build a pumping station.&uot;

Towers and airwave space are among several considerations that may have held back U.S. wireless operations as compared to Japanese and European markets.

Those markets early on reached agreements on uniform standards by which wireless technology would operate.

In the United States, however, the various systems have not been compatible.

New technologies called 3G (third generation) are expected to bring about the needed commonality and compatibility during the next year.

Dr. Vinton G. Cerf, senior vice president of MCI/WorldCom, based in Clinton, paints this futuristic picture on his web page at the WorldCom site:

&uot;One can foresee a time when virtually every hand-held tool and appliance is Internet-enabled,&uot; he writes.

&uot;Being on the Net allows these tools to make use of information to carry out their function,&uot; he continues.

&uot;Internet-enabled sewing machines can download new patterns.

&uot;Internet-enabled refrigerators can know their own contents and display recipes these contents match.

&uot;Internet-enabled automobiles can know where they are and ask of geographically-indexed databases on the net such questions as, `Where is the nearest restaurant and what is on the menu today? How do I get there? Can I get a reservation?’&uot;