High-speed mobile wireless takes three giant steps

High-speed wireless Internet access edged closer to reality this week as three of the four top US cellular telephone carriers promised to start providing supercharged wireless service this year, backed by multibillion-dollar infrastructure contracts.

What were lacking however, were details on pricing, the issue most important to customers.

Verizon Wireless in Bedminster, N.J., kicked off the broadband wireless buzz Monday at the annual conference of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) with a US$5 billion order for third-generation (3G) network equipment to Lucent Technologies. The deal will allow Verizon to provide 144K bit/sec service in unspecified markets before the end of the year. So as high-speed service ramps up, it will double the standard 56K bit/sec dial-up speed from a phone line.

Meanwhile, Sprint said it will spend $2 billion during the next two years to provide cellular phone service that will start at 144K bit/sec, ramp up to 307K bit/sec next year and reach 2.4M bit/sec to 3.5M bit/sec in 2004. Verizon Wireless will provide similar throughputs, analysts and industry experts said, since Verizon and Sprint will build 3G networks based on Code Division Multiple Access technology developed by Qualcomm.

Charles Levine, president of Sprint , said that despite the sizable investment required to upgrade the company's networks, the actual work should be relatively easy. "All we have to do is switch out cards [in network equipment], while other carriers will have to bring in forklift loads of gear," he said.

AT&T Wireless CEO Rod Nelson told reporters at the CTIA event that his company is still on schedule to roll out its 3G network based on both the Global System for Mobile and Time Division Multiplex Access standards in the second half of this year, with full deployment sometime in 2003. A press release from AT&T Wireless said, however, that the 2003 rollout is "subject to the availability of network equipment and customer devices."

While the carriers trumpeted their infrastructure plans, they kept mum about pricing, which is the key concern of its customers. Sprint's Levine repeatedly declined to address pricing at a news conference here, saying only that high-speed data service would command a premium over current voice plans that charge approximately $100 for a bucket of 1,000 minutes per month.

"None of the carriers have talked about their pricing plans, and without pricing, how real is 3G?" said Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass. "Right now, all we have are statements of intent. It is going to happen, but it will probably take longer than anyone thinks."

Users welcomed the 3G network rollout plans, saying that without higher speeds, the wireless Internet can't keep up with the wired Internet.

Jerry Yang, co-founder of Internet portal Yahoo Inc. said that average wireless connection speeds of 9.6K bit/sec. suffer "in a world where competitiveness is based on how fast you can deliver bits." Yang said that for wireless carriers to compete with fixed-line connections, they need to figure out "how to shove more data down their pipes. This is a real business issue. Until that [high speed wireless] happens, there will be less emphasis on data than in fixed line."

FedEx Corp., which operates a nationwide private wireless network capable of speeds of 19.2K bit/sec, has already started talking to carriers about their ability to provide higher speed service, said Randy Ford, company's manager of wireless system design. "We are looking at new technologies to augment our private network to provide us with even more information faster," he said.

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