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Verizon Wireless today began offering third-generation (3G) mobile data services, although the service is only available at speeds at about a third of the 144K bit/sec. hyped by the wireless industry last year, and is limited to the Bay area around San Francisco, Salt Lake City and East Coast markets between Portland, Maine, and Norfolk, Va.

In a related development, Cingular Wireless LLC in Atlanta and AT&T Wireless Services Inc. in Redmond, Wash., announced Monday that they have formed a joint venture to build a network that would provide higher-speed data services along 3,000 miles of major highways in the western U.S.

Bedminster, N.J.-based Verizon Wireless said in a statement that it would offer mobile data services in a limited number of markets at speeds up to 144K bit/sec. But it cautioned that "users should expect average speeds between 40K and 60K bit/sec.," or roughly equivalent to average throughputs that users experience on a 56K bit/sec. dial-up modem.

Verizon, which is the country's largest cellular carrier, with 29.4 million subscribers, expects to have what it calls its Express Network available across most of its nationwide service area by year's end.

The company has instituted what amounts to per-minute pricing for this new service on its advanced Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) network. Subscribers with monthly plans costing US$35 or more per month will be charged an additional $30 to use the data service. That allows customers to use their regular air time minutes for either voice or data service. Users also must buy either a $299 plug-in wireless modem card from Sierra Wireless Inc. in Richmond, British Columbia, or a voice phone with built-in modem for $79.99 and a separate connection kit. The kit costs another $79.99.

Alan Reiter, an analyst at Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing in Chevy Chase, Md., called the Verizon 3G network plan, "one step forward and one step backwards. ... They deserve kudos for not misleading the public on speeds, but the per-minute pricing plan and $30 fee is user-hostile."

AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless said their joint venture to build a Global System for Mobile/General Packet Radio Service (SM/GPRS) network in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah will bring advanced network services to their respective 17.1 million and 21.2 million subscribers "many months sooner than either company could on its own."

The joint western network is expected to be operational in the first quarter of next year.

AT&T Wireless and Cingular didn't describe the data speeds that will be available on the new network once it's in place. But Reiter said SM/GPRS networks offer lower throughput than the CDMA network operated by Verizon. He estimated speeds would be between 20K and 40K bit/sec.

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