Cellular Phones Gain Popularity Among Limousine Operators

LCT staff
Posted on September 1, 1985

Cellular telephones have moved rapidly into the limousine industry since the technology arrived on the market in the spring of ’82. Since the introduction of cellular service, it has become available in many of the country’s urban areas. The Limousine & Chauffeur survey conducted last fall reflected that one out of every ten limousines carries a cellular phone, and operators are now indicating that today’s percentage may be considerably higher.

Limousines and cellular telephones are seemingly made for each other. A telephone transforms a limousine into a mobile office for business travelers, and can add a significant amount of productive time to a work day.  AT&T projects that cellular systems will eventually be able to transmit data, as well as conversations, so that information such as stock prices will be accessible to limousine passengers. In addition to business uses, phones can be used to make dinner reservations, they are a means of getting information or directions, they can be employed to schedule a limousine for another occasion, and are used in a number of other different ways. Like the home telephone, cellular phones may start out as a convenience, and gradually evolve into a necessity—particularly in limousines.

Craig Hoelzel, sales manager for Ultra Limousine, says that cellular phones were installed in every Ultra vehicle built in the past year. The typical Ultra installation has a phone in front for use by the driver, and another in the passenger compartment. “I don’t know if all of our customers actually use their cellular phones,” says Hoelzel, “because cellular service can be expensive and some of them still prefer to use two-way radios, but we feel that cellular phones are a natural feature to include in a limousine.”

Twin City Limousine of Minneapolis, MN, has wired all of its vehicles for cellular equipment. Phones are plugged into the cars during day time runs, and removed for evening runs unless they are requested by a client. “I look at the phones as a necessary part of a limousine,” says Twin City’s Mike Linn. “They were expensive, but a phone is like a VCR and, even though it might not be used that often, customers like having them there,” Linn charges a dollar a minute for use of the phone and bills customers on the day after a run when phone charges are available from his cellular service company. Twin City Limousine makes $.47 profit on each minute that customers use the phone and, at that rate. Linn does not expect to directly recapture the $3000, cost of each unit but he does expect the phones to help promote business in a competitive market where the number of operators more than quintupled during the past year.

Mobile communication dates back to the beginning of the century in the United States. In the early days, it was apparent that two-way wireless communications could provide a significant navigational and safety aid to sea-going vessels and, as this technology developed, it was gradually adapted to automobiles.

During the fifties, early ‘sixties, mobile telephone conversations were broadcast by high frequency transmitters located at least seventy-five miles apart. A maximum of 25 channels could be used in these large service areas, and the quality of the signal was sometimes poor. Channels were not available for many potential customers, and those who had mobile telephones often had to wait for an available channel before making a call.

The quality and availability of mobile communication took a leap forward when cellular technology was given the commercial go-ahead by the FCC on March 3, ’82. Cellular systems are based on geographic areas, called cells, which generally have a radius of from eight to twelve frequency transmitter located in a building called a cell site. The cellular approach eliminates the need for high-powered radio transmission by carrying the conversation over regular telephone lines to a cell-site near the mobile customer. Using low power, the cell-site completes the call by radio transmission that covers only the area where the vehicle is traveling.

As a vehicle moves from cell to cell, a computer monitors the strength of the call and automatically switches it to the new cell-site at the proper time. Switching takes place in a fraction of a second and is not audible to the customer. Each cell is allocated a set of frequencies which differ from those of neighboring cells so that channels can be reused in adjacent areas. As the demand for cellular service increases, the number of channels serving a given geographical region can be increased through “cell splitting” in which existing cells are divided and assigned additional frequencies.

Through cell splitting, several hundred thousand customers could be served in each major service area.

The Federal Commission has partitioned the United States into Cellular Geographic Service Areas which have been rank-ordered into the top 30 markets, the top 60, the top 90, and so on. Cellular service has already begun in at least ninety percent of the top 30 markets and in nearly 50% of the top 90. The number of cellular phones in service is estimated to be approximately 90,000 in the United States, and AT&T projects that as many as one million units may be in use across the country by 1990. By the end of the century, perhaps four out of five cars in major cities around the country will be equipped with cellular phones.

The equipment required in a vehicle consists of two basic units, the control unit and the transmitter receiver. The control unit is normally mounted within reach of the vehicle operator and includes a handset, keypad, loudspeaker, visual indicators, and a digital display of the number dialed. In the case of limousines, one control unit is usually located in front with the chauffeur and a second one is installed in the passenger compartment. With some cellular systems, the handsets can be used as an intercom between the front and rear compartments. Another feature available on some cellular equipment is a display of the elapsed time that a unit has been used so that phone charges can be added to a customer’s bill.

The transmitter receiver, normally mounted in the trunk, provides duplex transmission and reception so that the driver can speak and listen at the same time. This unit contains a processor for controlling the call process functions and for self-testing. The signal enters and exits the car from an exterior antenna.

Installation of cellular equipment in a limousine should be done carefully to avoid interfering with the vehicle’s electrical system. Some limousines are pre-wired for cellular phones by the coachbuilder so that this equipment can be added without the need for an operator to run new wiring through a vehicle.

As more cellular units go into operation, the cost of owing and using a mobile phone is headed down toward popular levels. The quality of service is generally improving as well, with better signal quality and expanded service areas being offered by system operators. Product developers at AT&T expect that there will soon be cellular service along the major highways in the country with broadcast/receive antennas located at regular intervals. Cellular satellites are also being conceived which will beam signals to sparsely populated regions and to ships at sea. As cellular service is expanded and made more affordable, it is expected to proliferate in the passenger car markets around the world and all of the major U.S. automakers are planning to offer cellular phones as factory features in the near future.

Although cellular communication has advanced a great deal in recent years, AT&T engineers feel that some of the most exciting communication possibilities still lie ahead. One feature on the cellular horizon is voice activation technology with which a motorist can press a button, say “Cell John Doe,” and the unit will place the call. Another area of research is the merging of voice, data, and video technologies so that conversations, information and television signals can all be received and transmitted through cellular systems. This capability would generate a great number of new business and personal applications for limousines, as well as in may other industries. There is an eager marketplace for communication advances and virtually all of the technology for these projects is available, or is currently being tested, according to AT&T.

By 1990, AT&T feels that there could be more than a million cellular phones in use in this country. A relatively large portion of those will certainly be in limousines. The technology is here, the market is receptive, and limousine operators have an opportunity to make their vehicles even more attractive to consumers. Cellular phones may not yet be a necessity for limousine operators, but it’s becoming easier to foresee a time when they will be.

Related Topics: cellphones

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