By the time you read this, the distinctive crackly sound of an analog cell phone call will have disappeared from the American landscape.

For all practical purposes, the analog cellular communications network, which led the way for today's digital cell phone system, went dead on February 18. That's the date on which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allowed cellular system operators to shut down analog services. Most analog providers were planning to cut the cord immediately.

If you are like most people, you won't notice the change. A vast majority of cell phone traffic has been digital for years. Cell phone companies that offered analog services said their digital networks would take up the slack so that users of dual digital/analog phones wouldn't even notice.

Whether that is literally true remains to be seen. In some rural areas, new, or larger, dead spots in the cell phone service grid are likely. But for most cell phone users, it's business as usual.

“There is no doubt about it, if you are on the fringes [of receiving acceptable service] with an analog phone, there could be an issue with digital,” says an industry executive. “There definitely will be people all over the country who are affected by the shutdown.”

Don't confuse the death of the analog cell phone system with the demise of analog television. Digital TV is scheduled to crowd out analog broadcast TV signals a year from now, in February 2009 (see page 45).

So who cares?

John Deere and several large irrigation companies care about the death of analog. Add General Motors Company and the trucking, home and business security industries to the list, too.

What these companies and their customers have in common is that they were early adopters of technologies, such as GM's OnStar in-vehicle safety and security system, that relied on the cellular phone system when analog networks were the only game in town.

GM stopped offering analog-based OnStar services on January 1. Owners of older vehicles were left with the option of upgrading to digital equipment (upgrades weren't universally available), or doing without.

John Deere, as well as several irrigation companies, are in the same situation. If you use analog-based services from these companies, you've probably already been filled in on the implications.

JDLink down for now

As a result of the analog shutdown, John Deere has temporarily discontinued its JDLink-Machine Messenger service. Deere expects to have a replacement for the Web-based tractor-monitoring service within two years, says Louann Hausner, a Deere product marketing manager.

“We are in the process of devising a new offering,” she says. “We will be transitioning to a new product that will allow customers to do what they have in the past, and more.”

In the meantime, customers can piggyback on a system offered by Deere's construction and forestry division. The similarly named JDLink Machine Monitoring System -Standard uses the digital cellular network. It has a suggested list price of about $2,000 per machine, including installation.

JDLink-Machine Messenger, which John Deere introduced in 2003, provided a Web-based system for monitoring real-time in-field operating information on JDLink-equipped tractors. In addition to location, the system reported fuel tank level, status (off, idling, working or transporting) and current tractor settings. The system also communicated stop-engine alerts via e-mail and provided detailed operating reports.

The JDLink construction and forestry division service provides location and machine hour information and user-defined alerts for maintenance, location and theft, but it has limited ability to monitor machine-specific operations. Contact your John Deere dealer if you want to convert to that service.

Irrigation conversions

Irrigation companies, some of which began providing analog-based remote operation services before digital or satellite-based services were available, are in the midst of converting customers' older systems to digital.

Valmont Irrigation, for example, is working with customers to convert up to 1,400 center pivot irrigation pivots to digital-based systems by spring, says Mark Ringenberg, product application manager for Valmont's Valley Controls division. The systems allow irrigators to monitor and control irrigation rigs remotely.

The company is subsidizing the cost of the conversion, though customers will still bear some of the cost, which Valmont has not announced. “In the long run, we think that subsidizing the cost is worth it,” Ringenberg says. “We like to leave no pivot behind, technology-wise.”

Reinke Manufacturing, another irrigation system manufacturer, is working with customers to convert to satellite-based remote-controlled systems. “We saw this coming, so we don't have a lot of customers using analog systems,” says Ken Goodall, Reinke sales and marketing support manager. “Anybody with an analog system will have to make a conversion.”

Behind the phaseout

Planning for the phaseout of the analog phone network began more than five years ago, when the FCC agreed with cellular communications providers that the digital network had expanded to the point that it largely provided the same coverage as the analog network.

Two major forces were behind the change, says Jim Lienau, vice president of technical services for Cellcom, a wireless services company based in Green Bay, WI. Cellcom has provided both analog and digital cell phone services in its northeastern Wisconsin service area, but it plans to turn off its analog network this month.

The first driving force was the 10:1 efficiency advantage of digital over analog phones. Each cellular tower can handle roughly 10 times more digital calls than analog calls. That's possible because breaking up voices into digital information packets uses about a tenth of the bandwidth of an analog call.

Because of this advantage, analog providers have gradually shifted to newer digital systems as demand has grown and outstripped the carrying capacity of analog systems. However, the FCC still required analog cellular providers to keep this parallel analog system up and running.

“There has been a gradual erosion in analog,” Lienau says. “As you turn on more digital, you reduce analog capacity because they use the same radio spectrum.”

The second force was the FCC requirement that a cell phone's location be identified when dialing 911. Cellcom, like many wireless companies, chose a handset-based solution that requires GPS chips in each handset. These chips are available only in digital phones.

“To get GPS handsets, we had to change out our analog handsets, so most of our remaining analog business went away,” says Lienau, who notes that a federal mandate requires that at least 95% of all cell phones currently in use have E911 location capability. “The amount of analog traffic has been tiny.”

RIP analog cell phones.

THE END OF ANALOG TV

A year from now, in February 2009, analog broadcast television signals will bite the dust. To continue receiving broadcast TV, you will need a newer television set capable of receiving digital signals or a converter box to use with your analog set. Analog TVs will still be able to receive satellite and cable signals.

The cost of converter boxes is being subsidized via $40 coupons available from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Converters, which are expected to be on the market soon, reportedly will cost about $60. You will be able to buy converters at big-box retailers such as Best Buy, Circuit City, Target and Wal-Mart, as well as others.

To apply for up to two coupons, call 888/388-2009, or visit www.DTV2009.gov. Coupons expire 90 days after they are issued. Some experts advise waiting to request coupons until converters are available and price competition develops, possibly lowering prices.