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Something in the Air

Wireless technology is suddenly as ubiquitous as radio waves -- and nearly as invisible to most executives.

April may have been the cruelest month for Nasdaq, but in the very week that investors learned that Internet stocks are not immune to reality, a telecom megamerger fueled what may be the newest new thing: wireless communication. Bell Atlantic Corp. completed its joint-venture agreement with Vodaphone AirTouch Plc, creating Verizon Wireless. The new company will get a further boost this quarter, when parent Bell Atlantic’s acquisition of GTE Corp. is expected to be completed, making Verizon the country’s largest provider of wireless services.

Even as the ink was drying on that deal, Sprint Corp. and MCI WorldCom Inc. were pushing forward with their merger, expected to be completed by fall; SBC Communications and BellSouth were ironing out the details on a joint agreement that would give them almost one-fifth of the market; and AT&T was spinning out its Wireless Services Group via a tracking stock, raising more than $10.6 billion in history’s largest initial public offering.

This reverse Balkanization of the major telecom carriers is just one piece of evidence to support the argument that wireless technology will soon be a critical aspect of corporate life. The increasingly mobile nature of the American workforce, the momentum behind new communications standards, and plunging prices on a wide range of wireless equipment and services are reshaping the way America does business. At least that’s what those who sell these products and services claim. The corporate audience is less sure. No one really knows what form wireless technology will take, how much it will cost, or who the key providers will be.

One could hardly blame a company for waiting to see how things develop–yet that could be a mistake. “We’d rather not comment on wireless communications,” says a spokeswoman for a major office-supply retailer. “If our competitors find out what we’ve got planned, they’ll accelerate their own efforts.”

If? In all likelihood, it’s more a question of when. Mobile commerce, or “M-commerce” (conducting Internet transactions from a cell phone or handheld device), will be a $200 billion market by 2004, according to Strategy Analytics Inc., a market research firm in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

“Wireless should be on the radar screen of every CFO,” declares Bob Egan, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc., an information technology consultancy in Stamford, Connecticut. “It’s a vital part of customer service, it’s the growth hormone behind E-commerce, and companies should figure out how to manage it.”

Some companies, including Amazon.com and Yahoo Inc., are already rushing to make their Web sites available to users of handheld devices. Other companies are less concerned about serving phone-wielding customers than about making sure their own employees can access messages and critical company data from wherever they happen to be. This may be the more pressing area for businesses to concentrate on, given that there are 50 million mobile workers today. When Cahners In- Stat Group, a research firm in Newton, Massachusetts, asked 500 businesspeople how often they’d access job-related data with a wireless device if they could, 49 percent said they’d do so several times a day.

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