Frequently Asked Questions About Pagers
Pagers FAQ (Danny Burstein)
Version 0.5, 10 July, 1994
This FAQ has been put together to answer some of the more common
questions about pager systems. It is primarily focused on the US and
Canadian arrangements, but other countries are not forgotten.
Updated info or suggestions for further additions should be emailed to
the above address.
1) What is a pager anyway?
As usually described, a pager is a portable unit, generally about half
the size of an audio cassette box, which can be signalled to send a
one way message to the pager owner.
2) What types of messages?
The earliest units, usually called beepers, simply gave a tone alert.
This was a signal to the wearer to, for example, call the answering
The next step was units which could display numbers. While the most
common use is to send it the phone number you want the person to call,
you can, of course, add code numbers to mean anything else you'd want.
For example, the number xxx-yyyy-1 might mean to call the xxx-yyyy
number at your leisure. Xxx-yyyy-9 might mean call ASAP.
The most recent units, called alpha-numerics, display complete written
messages. So, for example, the pager could show the message: "please
call home, you have a letter from the IRS."
There are also -voice- pagers which will let you actually speak into
the phone and have it come out the person's pager. These are pretty
3) How are messages sent to the pager?
By radio. Well, it's a bit more complicated than that. Let's take a
look at how a pager actually works:
The pager is a small sized radio receiver which constantly monitors a
specific radio frequency dedicated to pager use. It remains silent
until it 'hears' a specific ID string which tells it to, in effect,
turn on, and then listen up for, and display, the forthcoming message.(again that could be a numeric or other string)
This ID is called (in the US) a CAPCODE. It has -nothing- to do with
the phone number you call or the ID you give to the page operator (see
So the key point is that the pager company radio transmitter is
constantly sending out pages, and your specific unit will only
activate when it hears its ID/CAPCODE over the air.
4) How do I send out the message?
This depends on your pager vendor. Let's take the most common
a) Alert tone only (the old style)
You call up a phone number assigned to the pager. You'll hear some
ringing, then a signal tone. At that point you hang up.
Shortly afterwards the pager transmitter will send out the
individual unit's capcode and it will go off.
b) Touch tone entry: You will call a phone number dedicated to the
specific pager. It will ring, then you'll hear a signal tone. At that
point you punch in, using touch tone, the number you want displayed on
A few seconds later the transmitter will kick out the pager's
capcode, followed by the numbers you punched in. Then the pager will
give its annoying alert tone, the person will read it, and call you
(note that there is a variation on this in which an entire group of
pagers has the same phone number. You call it up, then punch in the
pager's id number, and continue as above)
c) alpha-numeric: With this one there are various ways of getting the
message to the system.
i) via an operator: The pager company will have you dial up their
operator. When they answer, you give them the pager id number and the
message. They'll type it into the computer and shortly afterwards the
transmitter will send out the capcode and the message
ii) using -your- computer: Most pager companies with alphanumeric
have a dial-up number you can call yourself. Some of these will work
with regular @comm programs, while others require proprietary
The most common method is to have your computer dial up the number,then you type in the pager ID, followed by the message. Again, a
moment later, the system will transmit it over the air, etc. (There
are also various software packages that automate some of this)
iii) special terminals: Because of the popularity of this type of
system, there are various stand-alone terminals specifically designed
for this purpose. The most common one is the @Alphamate (tm Motorola)
and it automates many of the functions. It's basically a half-decent
keyboard with a two line display, and is preprogrammed with the phone
number of the company, etc.
5) My company has given us pagers, and I notice that I have both an
individual ID and a "group" number. When we page out to the group,
everyone's unit goes off. How does this work?
Remember that a pager is basically a radio receiver that is constantly
monitoring for its capcode. You can get pagers which monitor more than
one id. In this case (which is quite common) your personal capcode
might be yyyy, while your boss's might be yyzz. In addition, both
pagers will be listening for the capcode zzzz.
When zzzz is detected, all the pagers with that capcode will go off.
6) I keep hearing about sports or news services available by pager.
How do they work?
Keep in mind that pagers work by constantly monitoring the radio
channel for their capcode. So if you have ten pagers, or a hundred, or
a thousand, all with the same capcode, they will -all- go off at the
This way the sports news company sends out one message and it gets
displayed by all subscribers.
7) So if I find one of these sports-news pagers on the sidewalk I can
use it for free?
Umm, kind of. As long as the company providing the service keeps
using the same group code, your pager -will- continue to receive the
messages. But the individual pager id will probably be changed
immediately so you won't be able to use it for your personal messages.
Note also that some pagers -do- have the ability to be turned into alump of clay over the air. Very few systems have actually implemented
this security feature, but it is there.
8) I've found a pager on the sidewalk and would like to use it. What
can I do?
Not much. Keep in mind that you need an account with the paging
company for them to send out the radio signal. So unless you keep
paying them, the pager will soon be a paperweight.
You might as well turn it in for the reward...
9) Can I listen in/monitor pager channels?
Kind of. The frequencies are readily known and the data is a digital
stream going over the air. There are various vendors of equipment to
decode the material and display it or feed it into your computer.
a) The federales and the pager companies don't like
you doing this (see the ECPA)
b) The volume of traffic is quite high. If you figure a 1,200 baud
channel in use 75% of the time, well, ... you can work out the math.
Note that the numeric pagers these days do -NOT- use over-the-air
touch tone (dtmf) so a touch tone decoder will -NOT- give you anything
10) I have a pager for which I'm paying $big/month. I miss a -lot- of
pages since I'm in the subway a lot. What can I do about this?
There are a couple of things:
a) Some of the pager companies will re-send messages on request.
Basically you call up their phone number, punch in a security code,
then go through a menu which tells them to resend the last, say, five
hours worth of messages.
b) You can get a second pager unit cloned identically to the first.
leave this one at home or in your office. When you get back you can
compare its messages to the one on your belt.
11) What are the prices/services offered?
These vary dramatically by area and company. Unfortunately there is
no central database keeping records on this.
Generally the following factors get counted in determining what
you'll be paying:
a) how sleazy the company is;
b) Which type of pager and service you get. Again, the
most common are numeric (cheaper) and alpha-numeric (more expensive). c) Level of usage. You may get, say, 25 free messages/month
and then pay $0.25 for each additional.
d) whether you own the pager or lease it;
e) insurance, etc.
f) Area of coverage. Smaller area = less expensive.
12) Speaking of coverage, how do they offer nationwide paging?
Well, it's not quite what they're telling you. It's NOT a single
satellite covering the nation. Rather, what's done is:
You call up the paging company. It then signals transmitters in the
top 100 cities to send out your capcode. Shortly afterwards you get
the message. Note that you are -not- receiving a satellite transmission.
13) What's in the pipeline?
Two key features are slowly filtering down.
a) Much more pager memory/longer messages. Most pagers are severely
limited in the amount of material they can hold, with a typical
maximum being about 20 messages. Units with much larger memories, or
even better, units that are hooked into palmtop or laptop computers,
are making it to market.
b) two way communications: In its simplest form this allows the
pager to verify reception to the transmitter. Also on the way is
complete two-way communication which would basically be wireless
email. These systems are still a bit limited, but are rapidly gaining
footholds in industry and should soon be consumer level. Take a look,
for example, at what the Fedex folk carry.
Hope this help. Again, update suggestions should be sent to
firstname.lastname@example.org (or email@example.com)