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Wired: Americans hooked on communication gizmos

Are cell phones, pagers, modems indispensable or just status symbols?

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SILVER SPRING, Md. — Steve Perna is wired, though not from his morning coffee.

Every day, the car salesman clips a cellular telephone, an e-mail-capable pager and palm-size personal digital assistant to his waist.

He also carries a laptop and has desktop computers at home and the office.

"When you get all those things hanging off your belt it looks like Batman's utility belt or something," joked Perna, who manages online sales for a Lincoln-Mercury dealership outside Washington.

A caped-crusading superhero he is not. But Perna is among millions of people for whom the art of staying in touch and going about their daily business would seem all but impossible without wireless telephones and other electronic gizmos that started gaining popularity in the mid-1990s.

This year, the typical family will spend $595 on communications services — to surf the Internet, use a wireless phone or page someone — more than triple the $175 spent in 1995, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, an industry trade group.

These modern inventions have created an entirely new category of monthly communications spending — a far cry from the days when people just dropped a check in the mail to pay for the phone and, maybe, cable television.

Cell phones and Internet access via a cable modem on a home computer costs Beth Dougherty, 37, a consultant from Fairfax, Va., and her husband more than $200 per month.

What couldn't she live without? Cable TV, for starters. "I love my 120 channels."

Nathaniel Ennis, 35, of Washington, a temporary mail clerk at the International Monetary Fund, uses his home computer to send out resumes and surf the Internet. Add cell phones for him and his wife and premium cable TV, and the monthly communications bill runs about $140.

"My wife and I have been talking about getting a fax, too," Ennis said during lunch in a park near his Washington office, a cell phone tucked in his shirt pocket.

Michael Powell, who guides telecommunications policy as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, questions how much people can afford to spend on electronic gadgetry.

Powell uses a BlackBerry e-mail-capable pager, three cell phones and a Palm Pilot. At home with his wife and their two sons, he has two computers, two phone lines and a fax machine.

"It's a big chunk of my budget," Powell told the Associated Press.

Some 118 million Americans have wireless phones — nearly four times the number in December 1995, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, an industry trade group.

More than half, or 54 percent, of the 105 million U.S. households have at least one cell phone, according to Forrester Research, a technology research firm in Cambridge, Mass.

One in 10 households has a pager; 6 percent use a Palm Pilot.

"This is ballooning into two-, three-hundred-dollar communications bills," Powell remarked.

Such costs are certain to climb as the technology is put to new uses.

For example, families moving into 18 houses being built in the Seattle suburb of Renton can look forward to controlling any device, appliance or system in their homes using the TV remote control, mobile phone, personal digital assistant or some other wireless device.

Perna, 43, has his cell phone and BlackBerry pager costs covered by his employers, leaving him with a bill of about $80 a month for Internet access and a home phone line.

His Handspring Visor palm-sized computer was a gift from his wife.

Not everyone sees the need to load up life with technology.

Krystal Williams, who heads to business school at Dartmouth College in the fall, said she recently canceled her cell phone because she didn't use it enough to justify the cost.

But she has a computer at home and wants to get a laptop for school. She also won a Palm Pilot during orientation for business school, but hasn't powered it up yet.

"I think my world will get increasingly high-tech when I start business school, but right now I just can't afford some stuff," said Williams, 27, of Chapel Hill, N.C.

Two years with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republican taught her that she can live without any of the gadgets.

"People have things because we like to appear we're important," Williams said.

Contributing: Associated Press writer Brooke Donald