Paging Industry Boom
On a recent Friday night, Randy Williams glanced at the clock and wondered why his teenage daughter Amanda had not come home yet. Earlier that evening, the Toronto high-school student had gone off to be with friends. Williams understood that teenagers will be teenagers, but with the clock showing 1:05 a.m., five minutes past her curfew, he wanted some answers. Instead of worrying and waiting up until Amanda arrived, however, he did something that a growing number of Canadian parents are doing: he paged his daughter. Amanda promptly responded with a call of her own to say that she was safe and on her way. "She was waiting for the streetcar to come to take her home," says the 36-year-old Williams. "It was good to know where she was."
Creating a sense of security among parents is only one reason why pager sales in Canada are booming. With users quadrupling in the past five years to close to 1 million, price is obviously a factor: pagers cost significantly less than cellular phones. Another is that teens, despite being reined in by parents, like having pagers as a link to their friends. "For the kids, it's something to be cool," says Lisa Gulliver, a manager at DownEast Mobility in Halifax. "It's convenient," Amanda Williams says. "I'm always out and about." There are also the parents who like to know their babysitter can reach them in an emergency. "It's quiet," Gulliver says. "It's not going to make a scene if they're in a movie, restaurant or wherever."
Another sign of the paging industry's good health is the arrival of two U.S.-based companies, PageMart and PageNet, which have established Canadian counterparts prepared to enter the market next month, sales pitches blazing, while taking dead aim at local industry leaders Bell Mobility, Cantel and Shaw Mobile Comm. PageNet in particular, the world's biggest provider of paging services, is expected to help drive prices down in the sensitive market. "It's the Wal-Mart of pagers," says Kate McCowen, a financial analyst for Bunting Warburg. Still, there seems to be room for all the players. "I hope they come into the market," says Kerri Golden, president and CEO of Bell Mobility Paging Inc. "That way people get a better appreciation for what paging can do for their lives so there's a bigger pie, and therefore I can take a bigger slice."
There certainly appears to be room for growth. In spite of the industry's impressive gains, in Canada pagers are used by only 3.5 per cent of the potential market. Industry analysts expect that to double in the next five years. That optimism may not be unfounded - market penetration in the United States, for example, is currently about 14 per cent and, in Hong Kong, about 20. And while the market mainstay has long been professionals - doctors, lawyers, business people - paging-company executives are now aggressively targeting parents with teenagers, adults with aging parents, not to mention gabby teens keen on linking up with friends. "It's the 21st-century version of passing notes," Rob Graham, vice-president of sales and marketing for PageMart Canada Ltd., says of the teen market. "They're paging each other with these little numeric codes that mean different things: 1-2-3; I like you."
Another driving force is rapidly developing technology, which makes pagers more versatile. Today's market features simple numeric pagers that display a caller's phone number or notify the user of a voice message. There are sophisticated alphanumeric pagers that perform the same basic functions - but can also display a written message. Not surprisingly, with the rapidly growing popularity of the Internet, PageMart plans to introduce what it bills as the first pager link to the Net: a computer user can page someone by e-mail. Similar technology is available for office voice-and e-mail. And in July, Bell Mobility expects to begin trials for two-way pagers. "You could actually send a message to a vending machine that says, 'How many diet Cokes are left?' " Golden says. "And it could respond back saying, 'There's only one. Could you dispatch somebody to come out and fill me up again?' " Cantel, meanwhile, is developing a pager that can be programmed to monitor the fluctuations of particular stocks. "Whenever something happens on that stock within the movement parameters that you've set, then it will page you," says Joanna Fuke, Cantel's vice-president of marketing for the company's paging division.
Not bad for a contraption pegged to go the way of the dinosaur when cellular phones were introduced in the mid-1980s. Size, discretion, longer battery life and the ability to screen calls have all helped pagers dodge extinction. Price is a selling point, too. The average monthly cellular-phone bill at Bell Mobility is $65. For pagers, it is $19. Today, a simple numeric pager sells for about $89, with monthly fees running at about $13.95, or even less. And with prices dropping, industry officials are counting on more parents using pagers to answer the ever-pressing question: if it's midnight, do you know where your children are?
Maclean's March 18, 1996