Busier Phone Lines

Pacific Bell plans to install a gadget that splits an ordinary telephone line into seven separate channels in 1,750 Southland homes and work places this fall in the first commercial test of the new technology known as Project Victoria.

"If the trial concludes that sufficient demand exists for this technology and the services it delivers, it could be on the market as early as 1988," said Michael L. Eastwood, who directs research into new uses of the phone network for Pacific Bell. "We plan to study a wide variety of potential uses for the technology," Eastwood said. "We want to determine the level of interest in various kinds of services the technology can support. We feel that Project Victoria technology can benefit a broad spectrum of people."

The technology is a "black box" whose electronic innards split--or multiplex--a telephone line into multiple channels, enabling it to carry out up to seven jobs simultaneously. Thus, a resident can transmit computer data without tying up the family phone or having to install an additional line.

Potential other uses, Eastwood said, include hooking up an emergency alarm service, monitoring energy use, selecting pay-television programs, reading utility meters, accessing videotext services, and banking and shopping from home--all with the existing copper wire linking the phone company's switch and customers up to four miles away. A field test last year involving 200 residents of Danville, Calif., a Contra Costa County community adjacent to Pacific Bell's sprawling service center in San Ramon, proved the technology but did not seek to measure the value of the multiplex service to participants, half of whom were Pacific Bell employees.

Among applications being considered for the Southland marketing trial, the company said, are home banking, electronic mail, medical monitoring, airport kiosks for airline ticket and car rental transactions, automated teller machines, fire and burglar alarm services, home meter reading and energy management, electronic entertainment guides, debit card terminals and pay-per-view television program ordering.

"While Project Victoria promises a great deal of utility, we believe its technological efficiency also will make it very affordable."

Sites for the trial, which will last up to a year, include Los Angeles International Airport and adjoining neighborhoods to the north, and another similarly sized area north of nearby Inglewood. The test areas were selected, the company said, because they surround a center for such information-intensive industries as hotels, airline ticket sales, travel agents and car rental agencies, and the adjoining neighborhoods offer residents representing a broad range of incomes.

The phone company finds itself between two sets of customers, Eastwood said in an interview shortly after Project Victoria's technical test concluded last October: phone users and information vendors. The better and more valuable the services offered by vendors, the greater the attraction for phone customers to sign up for black-box service--increasing the phone company's revenue from its existing network, he explained.

Consumers spent an estimated $123 billion last year on voice-and-data services, and are expected to spend nearly $209 billion by 1990. To ensure a true picture of the market potential for the new technology in the coming trial, participants will have to pay rates to be set by the California Public Utilities Commission for the Project Victoria technology and any services they select. These rates are under development, Eastwood said, and are to be reviewed by the PUC later this spring.

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