Printer Friendly

Communications stampede; enhanced features and improved technology continue to revamp business communications.

The electronic business communications net is everywhere these days. Like it or not, business is no longer confined to the office or to office hours. Cellular phones, faxes, pagers and new video applications put people in touch instantly. Voice mail allows sales people and others to field calls no matter where they are, and laptop computers are transforming cars and airplanes into traveling production centers.

But if the pace seems more hectic than ever, it's also true that technology is opening up new opportunities and increasing employee productivity. Voice mail, cellular phones, fax machines and other technologies are breaking the chains that kept workers bound to their desks and are offering new ways to transact business. Here's a look at several new developments.


Using technology first licensed in 1983, cellular phones now number roughly 5 million nationwide. For Doug Green, owner of Arctic Mortgage Insurance in Anchorage, the cellular phone is a business lifeline. At the height of the last decade's real estate boom, the insurance firm had a staff of eight. Today the office is a one-man operation.

"I deal strictly with banks and financial institutions, and they might need to get ahold of me any time. I can't really go on vacation, and when I've processed a claim here in the office, there's really nothing else for me to do," says Green.

Green says when he's out of the office making sales calls, doing community service work and hiking or fishing, he forwards his calls to his car phone. If he's not there to answer, the message is recorded into a voice mailbox, where it can be retrieved by telephone from anywhere in the world.

According to Green, the time savings have been terrific. "The first couple of years, I spent eight or nine hours a day here at the office, and it was frustrating and boring. There was a huge amount of wasted time. Now I'm here just long enough to get the work done."

Green points out that a secretary would cost at least $1,200 a month, and the cellular phone and voice mailbox cost less than $200 a month. He also says he's never lost a message.

In cellular communication technology, signals are sent by transmitters over small geographical areas called cells. Because relatively few calls can be made in any one cell -- 840 frequencies are available per cell -- transmissions deliver a strong, clear signal. If more customers join the system, more transmission sites are added and the cells become still smaller.

Calls from moving vehicles are handed off from one cell to another by computer without the caller ever being aware of the process. Under "roaming" agreements, calls can be transferred to areas served by a different cellular phone system.

The cellular phone is everything a regular phone is without the cord, says Terrence Connor, general manager of Cellular One of Anchorage. Enhancements sold include a hands-free microphone set and a voice-activated dialing system. Cellular phones are available in mobile, portable and transportable models.

The original cellular phone, the mobile phone, delivers the clearest sound, but it can only be used in a vehicle. Most popular nowadays and the highest priced model is the portable cellular phone, weighing as little as seven ounces and small enough to fit into a pocket or purse. Portable phones can be equipped with car mounts that boost power by connecting the phone with the car battery and an external antenna, which improves reception.

The transportable cellular phone was introduced as a compromise between mobile and portable phones. Although too big to lug around, the transportable's lower cost made it attractive until prices started to drop for portables, according to Connor.

He reports that mobile phones now represent only 20 percent of the market; while portables and transportables account for 70 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Because Alaska's cellular systems are not yet connected, none of the cellular phone models can be used while outside of a cellular service area. On the road from Anchorage to Fairbanks, there is no cellular service from approximately Willow until within a 20-mile radius of Fairbanks.

Steve Erickson, Alaska district manager for Cellulink of Tomah, Wis., a cellular telephone company operating in Alaska, says cellular phone service has been in place for a little more than a year in Fairbanks and about eight months in Juneau. In May, Cellulink plans to install a high-powered repeater in the Capital City to extend service to boats.

One reason for cellular phones' popularity in Fairbanks is residents' fears of being stranded in sub-zero winter weather, Erickson notes. Among Interior businesses using cellular phones are contractors, snow-plowing firms, pizza parlors and bounty hunters.

Erickson expects cellular service to expand from Alaska's larger cities. "We have the rights to the northern part of the state, and we're looking at expanding in Barrow, the North Slope, Delta Junction and Nenana," he says. "New service requires quite a bit of equipment, and it takes several years to recoup the investment."

With the spread of cellular technology, electronic eavesdropping on confidential calls has become a concern. Connor notes that scramblers at each end of the communication prevent messages from being intercepted. He feels that the danger of eavesdropping on cellular phone conversations has been exaggerated, possibly because people have confused cellular service with other technologies.

"Right now, the signal is analog," Connor explains. "As the country goes to digital, it will make eavesdropping more difficult. As for the issue itself, there are 840 frequencies available to a cellular phone, and when you're driving around, your conversation is being handed off from one transmission site to another. Although it is possible to overhear a particular conversation, it is very difficult to target one."

Because of the speed at which cellular communications is evolving, Connor predicts, "It will be unrecognizable in a few years." He says a futuristic satellite-based technology referred to as personal communication service will allow any user to be in instant contact with any other user anywhere in the world sometime in the 21st century.


The pager is an inexpensive alternative to cellular telephones for companies that need to stay in touch with employees in the field. Cellular One's Terrence Connor calls paging an overlooked technology that offers more flexibility than cellular phones. He notes that traditional beepers are being replaced by vibrating alphanumeric pagers, which use technology that, although available for the last five to seven years, only now is gaining popularity.

Before the alphanumeric model was introduced, three kinds of pagers were available: tone alert, which beep; numeric display, which print out the telephone number of the caller; and tone and voice, which record a voice message that vanishes after being replayed.

Today's alphanumeric pager relays the telephone number of the caller and a recorded printed message. It displays a message of up to 230 characters on a liquid crystal screen and can store up to 40 messages.

Sandy Quinones, courier for the law firm Guess & Rudd, says her alphanumeric pager has become indispensable: "It saves time. It saves trips. It's saved my sanity."

She found that other types of pagers that only beeped or played a voice message didn't provide enough information or couldn't be heard in traffic. "The pagers help a lot. They can page me if I'm near a pickup location when an order is received or if there's something pressing at the office. I don't have to stop and find a phone," Quinones explains.


Mike Woolcock, owner of Advanced Voice Services of Anchorage, admits that voice mail and other answering systems have been perceived as a way of deflecting calls instead of answering them. "Until recently, this technology was regarded as impersonal. Basically, it hasn't been implemented properly. When it is, it's a tremendous business tool," he says. Advanced Voice put its first customer on-line in 1990, and now has more than 500 voice mailboxes in operation.

Voice mail allows businesses to direct callers and provide information by phone without adding extra employees. Woolcock says many phone calls are eliminated and employees' time is freed for other tasks.

"Statistically, for three-fourths of all business phone calls, the intended receiver is unavailable and more than 50 percent of all business calls are a one-way transfer of information. These facts are what make voice mail productive," Woolcock explains.

In addition to providing recorded messages, voice mail can be integrated with a telephone system to broadcast messages into many voice mailboxes at once or to transfer messages from one mailbox to another. Another option is certified voice mail, which ensures that a message was received. According to Woolcock, voice mail is more reliable and confidential than tape machines.

He points out that technological developments are broadening voice-processing applications. "In the next year or two, I anticipate a lot more of the interactive voice response services like the bank-by-phone lines. In 1992, I expect to see fax-back applications, in which there is direct communication with a data bank and the information requested is faxed back to you," he says.


"Faxing is the only way to do business all over the world," says Irene Green, international marketing director for Alaska World Tours, an Anchorage tour-package company that brings foreign tourists to Alaska. The firm specializes in package tours from Germany and communicates worldwide.

Green says she receives an average of 35 faxes daily in a variety of languages. Fortunately Green, a native of The Hague, Netherlands, speaks seven languages. She admits to using a translator for faxes from Far East countries.

According to Green, the fax has a lot of advantages over other communications methods for doing business overseas. She points out that in many countries, telephone service is expensive and undependable, mail is slow, and private couriers costly.

When doing business in foreign languages, it's much easier to avoid misunderstandings with a written fax than a verbal telephone call, Green notes. "On a fax, if I don't understand a particular phrase, I can ask someone else exactly what is meant. It's written down and signed," she says.

Greg Niesen of Frontier Business Machines in Anchorage notes that among new developments in facsimile technology, the availability of laser plain-paper fax machines has doubled and tripled sales, as companies replace machines using thermal papers that curl. He points out, too, that transmission, formerly at 9,600 bits per second, now moves at 14,400 bits per second. Consequently, a standard business letter that used to take 12 seconds to transmit now takes only 6 seconds.

New fax machine models also provide dual access -- a message can be scanned into memory while another message is being received. Because more than one message can be scanned, employees don't have to stand in line to send letters.


Video conferencing allows people in widely separated areas to have meetings with the same dynamics and visual clues as do face-to-face conferences. The technology can eliminate the time, expense, risk and stress of travel, and because the meeting is recorded, it can be reviewed later.

Matt Peterson, an attorney with the Anchorage law firm of Hughes, Thorsness, Gantz, Powell & Brundin, used video conferencing to file depositions in New York and Miami from Anchorage in a product-liability case involving the testimony of experts. "It was probably cheaper to use the video conferencing when you add up all the expenses of travel. But the time saving was the big thing," he says.

Peterson estimates that the long-distance video meetings took six hours, whereas travel to New York and Miami would have taken a minimum of four days. "We had good eye contact. You could see the witnesses, see how they answered questions, and put questions to them. It's like talking to someone," Peterson adds.

Although the video sound is briefly delayed, Peterson says people fell into the rhythm after 5 or 10 minutes. He notes also that in his experience the video had a jerky motion "like an old silent movie."

Meg Sudduth, video communications specialist for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., says video conferences between the Anchorage headquarters and the Valdez terminal are a key communications link for the firm. "It's good for us because it can be so hard to travel by air in Alaska because of the weather. This gives us another option," she explains.

"At first, it was hard to get used to it. It's not flattering, and people were self-conscious," Sudduth adds.

She notes that Alyeska has arranged to use the video conferencing during emergency response drills to conduct interviews with the media between Valdez and Anchorage. "We're looking into implementing teleconferencing for the pump stations. It's a nice high-tech communication alternative," Sudduth says.

Michael Hidalgo, video conference marketing manager for Pacific Rim Telecommunications of Anchorage, calls the technology the "6,000-mile conference table." Pacific Rim provides voice, data and video satellite communications.

According to Hidalgo, as many as 16 different sites can be included in a conference. Split screen and window or picture-in-a-picture features allow viewers to see more than one image at a time. Cameras can be set for as many as four positions, and the audio systems are self-calibrating. Because voices activate the units and problems arise if more than one person talks at a time, a moderator often is named to keep exchanges flowing smoothly.

The cost for one hour of video conferencing, including the room rental at both ends, runs about $500 to $600 in Alaska. In the Lower 48, because high-speed data transmission lines are available, an hour of video time is priced lower, at roughly $100 to $200 per hour.

Technological advances have reduced the cost of video conferencing. The original systems required the equivalent of 50 telephone lines, while the newest systems do the same job with the equivalent of only two lines. Additionally, software improvements have improved video image quality.

"Right now, you can buy a barebones black-and-white unit for about $19,000. The magic number is supposed to be $10,000. When the prices get that low, video conferencing will be affordable for practically any business," Hidalgo says.


Bill Schultz, manager of PC Express Office System Rentals, a division of Colortyme of Anchorage, says he's selling lots of laptop computers but has noted only limited demand for combination laptop computers and portable printers that virtually create an office in a suitcase. He says Alaskans as a rule don't do the kind of long-distance commuting that makes the portable printer and fax machine worthwhile.

"Having a car phone with your computer is a neat idea in theory, but in practice there's a lot of problems," Schultz says. "The phone would allow you to access a database or transmit sales orders. Beyond that, there's the ability to send and receive faxes." He notes that transmission problems caused by buildings or other obstacles, which may be only a slight problem for telephone voice conversation, completely disrupt modem transmission by portable units.

Schultz notes that unlike the document-scanning fax equipment used in most offices, portable fax machines use computers to create and send digital messages, allowing better resolution. Fax documents can be stored and edited, but because the computer circuits are also running programs, portable fax machines are slower than office models. Scanners can be used with portable fax machines to process printed documents.

"With the portables, the fax machine becomes, in effect, graphic electronic mail. The reason it's not being used is because people aren't aware of its capabilities or they're afraid of the technology," Schultz says. He anticipates increased use of car fax machines, but doesn't expect them to become as popular as cellular phones.

Schultz notes that the laptop computers can help change time lost on airline flights into productive time. "When you have to fly, you're talking about two or three hours of added productivity, and these computers fit right on the airline trays," he says.

According to Schultz, the smart consumer will consider more than price and weight when buying electronic equipment. "You can buy a lot of inexpensive fax boards that are more trouble than they're worth," he warns. Also, extremely lightweight models often are less reliable than other models, Schultz adds.

Few fields are changing as fast as business communications. The industry continues to generate a steady stream of innovative products and services. Business managers need to be as ingenious as the engineers who design the high-tech equipment to discover the best applications.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Gerhart, Clifford
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:Industry Overview
Date:Apr 1, 1992
Previous Article:Villages plant seeds of oyster industry.
Next Article:Innovative Cooking Enterprises: cookbook for automatic bread makers rises to fill a niche.

Related Articles
Meeting strategic goals by using workgroups.
Re-energizing your recognition program. (Rewarding Employees).
ACPE to launch new Web site for 2006.
Click here! Be sure to check out ACPE's new Web site.
Wireless management platform.
Charting a course to success: map in hand, a Calgary nonprofit followed its own path when it needed to convey project details and highlight its role...

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters