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MCI enters wireless competition

The day when people will be able to send faxes and electronic mail _ all from a mobile telephone whose number goes where you go _ came closer Monday.

MCI Communications Corp. announced it is going into the wireless communications business.

The nation's No. 2 long-distance company said it will invest $1.3-billion, buying a 17 percent stake, in Nextel Communications, a Rutherford, N.J., company that provides two-way radio systems for businesses.

Nextel chairman Morgan O'Brien said that, within two years, 95 percent of the country's population will have access to the new service, which, like cellular, is delivered over radio frequencies.

Two other companies are working with MCI and Nextel. Comcast Corp., a big Northeast cable TV and cellular phone company based in Philadelphia, will help with marketing the products. It also owns 17 percent of Nextel.

Motorola Inc., the big electronics products manufacturer based near Chicago, owns 20 percent of Nextel and will make the phones.

MCI said the alliance gives it a leg up into the next generation of mobile communications services, but competitors disputed that. They said they are closing in on that goal.

Like the MCI-Nextel alliance, other companies are in the process of converting their communications systems from analog to digital technology. Analog uses traditional radio circuits while digital technology converts voice and data to billions of ones and zeros recognized by computers, then sends them over radio waves using audio pulses, providing clearer, more reliable service.

The other companies also said that they, too, are linking individual cellular companies together nationally, eliminating the need for callers to punch in extra numbers to make calls.

And they said they are also developing futuristic mobile services, such as fax and data transmission to laptop computers, enabling a customer to use a phone like a personal computer.

Still, MCI, Nextel and Comcast predict they will get to market faster than their competitors.

The alliance is "bringing together partnerships that can make things happen quickly," MCI chairman Bert Roberts said.

MCI's biggest rival is AT&T, which has plans to acquire the nation's largest cellular company, McCaw Cellular Communications.

AT&T expects the Justice Department to approve the McCaw merger by late summer, clearing the way for the company to plunge into the wireless communications market, said AT&T spokesman Herb Linnen.

Sprint, the nation's third-largest long-distance provider, which is already in the wireless business, played down the impact of the MCI alliance.

The wireless communications market, chiefly mobile phone service, is expected to grow from its current 15-million customers to as many as 90-million customers in 10 years, Roberts said.