When Adele Rothman bought her 16-year-old son a car in 2003, she made sure to pick one that had OnStar, the onboard communications and safety system.
What the Scarsdale, N.Y., resident didn't know was that the OnStar system in the car was already doomed to die. The federal government decided in 2002 to let cellular carriers shut down analog cell phone networks, used by Rothman's Saab and about 500,000 other OnStar-equipped cars, after Feb. 18, 2008.
It's the end of the nationwide network that launched the U.S. wireless industry 24 years ago, and it leaves a surprising number of users like Adele Rothman in the lurch.
OnStar told Rothman in March its service would stop at the end of this year, in anticipation of the network shutdown in February. I was really upset, she said, because that was my tieline to her son.
Perhaps a million cell phones will lose service, but those are cheap and easy to replace. The effects will be felt the most by people who have things that aren't phones but have built-in wireless capabilities, like OnStar cars and home alarm systems.
The shutdown date has been known years in advance, but some industries appear to have a had a problem updating their technologies and informing their customers in advance, which raises the question of whether the effects will be even more widespread the next time a network is turned off, given the proliferation of wireless technology.
General Motors Corp., which owns OnStar, started modifying its cars after the 2002 decision by the Federal Communications Commission to let the network die, but some cars made as late as 2005 can't use digital networks for OnStar, nor can they be upgraded. For some cars made in the intervening years, GM provides digital upgrades for $15.
In 2006, OnStar said it had let customers know of the shutdown with a posting on its Web site. This year, it said it had notified all affected customers. Spokeswoman Cristi Chojnacki said she was unable to comment beyond those statements. General Motors and other car manufacturers with similar systems, including Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz, are facing a potential class-action lawsuit over the analog shutdown.
When Rothman complained, GM sent a $500 coupon toward the purchase of a new car. To compensate for the lack of OnStar, she outfitted her son's car with a handsfree system and a Global Positioning System.
A week before the end-of-year shutdown, the analog coverage map is still the first one presented on OnStar's Web site. The digital coverage map, showing large areas of limited service in out-of-the-way places, is available on another page.
On the home alarm side, about 400,000 systems still use analog service, according to Lou Fiore, chairman of the Alarm Industry Communications Committee. In most of those systems, the wireless link to the alarm center is a backup to the landline. But some homes lack a landline, so the wireless link is the only connection to the outside world.
Fiore doesn't know the current number of systems that only use analog wireless connections and no landline, but a survey by the AICC a few years ago put the number at 138,000.
The larger (alarm) companies are in pretty good shape, Fiore said. There are so many smaller companies out there that are probably, I'd say, in denial. They just don't know about it.
To complicate things, some alarm systems advertised as digital actually use a digital subchannel of the analog network. True digital alarm system modems did not become available until 2006, according to the AICC.
According to the FCC, many analog alarms that have not been replaced by the time the network is shut down will start beeping to warn that they've lost the connection to the alarm center.
The Central Station Alarm Association, an alarm industry group and the parent of the AICC, tried to get the FCC to delay the analog sunset.
The FCC turned away that request this year, saying digital networks are a much better use of the airwaves. The same spectrum can carry about 16 times more traffic using digital technology compared to analog.
Verizon Wireless, AT&T Inc. and Alltel Corp. are the largest carriers that still have analog networks. Alltel will take more time than Verizon and AT&T to close its network, shutting down in three stages ending in September. Each carrier will keep its portion of the newly available spectrum, and will use it to boost their digital services.
A few rural cellular providers may keep their networks up. Plateau Wireless, which provides service in eastern New Mexico and western Texas, will maintain its analog network alongside a digital one for the foreseeable future, according to Chief Executive Tom Phelps.
Many of the company's 75,000 customers are farmers and ranchers, and the network's superior range helps them because it fills gaps in the digital network. The larger carriers say their digital buildout will cover any gaps left by the demise of analog service.
Commercial service on the analog network, also known as the Advanced Mobile Phone Service, or AMPS, began in 1983; it was the first time coverage areas were divided into smaller areas known as cells, a move that boosted call capacity tremendously.
Rapid development in the wireless field now means a faster, better technology always lurks just around the corner, tempting carriers to upgrade. Digital networks will almost certainly have shorter life spans than the 24-year run for AMPS, causing problems for manufacturers who want to include wireless technology in things that have long life spans.
If you've got a product that's going into the market for five years, for 10 years, for 15 years, how do you pick a technology that's going to be around that long? asked Chris Purpura, senior vice president of marketing at Aeris Communications.
Aeris, in San Jose, runs a control center that manages automated wireless communications for alarm companies, trucking fleets, manufacturers and utilities. As late as last year, more than a million of its clients' devices, like remote-readable electricity meters and refrigerated shipping containers, used the analog network.
Purpura said the next generation of wireless devices could be 10 times as big, making the challenge of the next transition even greater. He said GPRS, or General Packet Radio Service, could be the next network to go, since this relatively slow second-generation digital technology isn't compatible with newer cellular broadband networks.
I don't think anyone wants to go through this again in five years, Purpura said.