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A novel paradigm based on pitch-adaptive windows is proposed for solving the problem of encoding the fixed codebook excitation in low bit-rate CELP coders. In this method, the nonzero excitation in the fixed codebook is substantially localized to a set of time intervals called windows. The positions of the windows are adaptive to the pitch peaks in the linear prediction residual signal. Thus, high coding efficiency is achieved by allocating most of the available FCB bits to the perceptually important segments of the excitation signal. The pitch-adaptive method is adopted in the design of a novel multimode variable-rate speech coder applicable to CDMA-based cellular telephony. Results demonstrate that the adaptive windows method yields excellent voice quality and intelligibility at average bit-rates in the range of 2.5-4.0 kbps.