The next generation of wireless service can let you stay on anywhere
Your plane has just arrived at the airport. You locate a Wi-Fi hotspot and pull out your laptop to check e-mail and do some quick Web surfing. You log off, hop into a cab and realize that you forgot to CC your boss. Do you ask the cab driver to pull over at the nearest Starbucks? Not if you’re a real road warrior. Then you use one of the new wireless connections that make the Web available on the go through your cell-phone carrier’s data network using a wireless-modem card in your laptop.
The good news about such networks: No more searching around for Wi-Fi hotspots. The downside: For now, even the fastest of these wide-area wireless data networks can’t deliver the download speeds of a Wi-Fi hotspot, and access requires specialized hardware. But they cover the same area that typical cell phone service does, use the same billing as a typical voice plan, and lately have experienced dramatically improving data rates.
Most cell-phone carriers will tell you that Wi-Fi is a great service, but that in the years to come, high-speed data will be available everywhere — not just in lots of everyday locations, but anywhere within range of a cell tower. Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless share a technology (nicknamed “1X”) that, for several years now, has given their services data rates of 50 to 70 kilobits per second, with peaks up to 144 Kbps. Compared to the connection speed of a 56K modem — on average, less than 40Kbps with peaks up to 56 Kbps — that’s cooking with gas.
Last fall, AT&T Wireless one-upped Sprint and Verizon with the nationwide rollout of its EDGE data network. EDGE, meaning “enhanced data rates for GSM [or global] evolution,” connects laptops to the Net at speeds of 100 to 130 Kbps, with bursts up to 200 Kbps with the right modem card. Cingular launched its first EDGE network in Indianapolis in July 2003, and plans to complete a nationwide EDGE deployment sometime this year.
It’s the hardware requirement that has slowed the adoption of these wireless data services. Many carriers offer all-you-can-eat usage plans for around $80 a month, but you still have to pony up around $200 (sometimes less with rebates) for the modem card. As a one-time investment, that’s not bad, but since the technologies have been changing so frequently — and since you never know whose plan you’ll be on when your contract expires — there’s no telling when you’ll have to buy another.
For some of these data services, the phone itself can become a modem — think of it as a satellite dish — tethered to the laptop or PDA by a USB cord, or even through thin air via infrared port. This eases your hardware investment, because you don’t have to buy an extra PC card, but for a variety of technical reasons you’re probably not going to get top speeds out of this setup.
Wi-Fi is currently the faster, simpler way to connect, provided there’s a hotspot where you need it. It’s hard to find a laptop these days that doesn’t offer built-in Wi-Fi, and Wi-Fi cards for outfitting older laptops are cheap and plentiful. (Amazon lists over 20 cards selling for as little as $35 a piece.) Speeds vary from location to location, but it’s reasonable to expect an Internet connection that rivals broadband in the home, say from 600 Kbps up to 1 megabit per second.
Many carriers, having partnered with Wi-Fi service providers, are trying to merge the various data technologies into a single plan. It makes sense, they argue, because mobile web-surfers would love to be automatically switched to a higher-speed Wi-Fi network if there’s one available, and because those Wi-Fi networks would be able to take some strain off cell towers at high-traffic environments like airports and hotels.
A marriage like that takes work, especially when it means merged billing and “seamless” networking. Sprint PCS has shown the most enthusiasm toward this idea, having created software that manages both the AirPrime 1x modem card and the computer’s own Wi-Fi networking and offers users a choice of available networks. Still, Sprint has yet to introduce integrated billing, though it plans to have it by the end of the year.
T-Mobile, one of the leaders of the Wi-Fi revolution with 3,900 hotspots nationwide, does offer integrated billing to their cell-phone customers. However, the company has been tight-lipped about its plans for a high-speed wide-area data service, since it might be competition to its Wi-Fi interests, including hotspots at Starbucks, Borders and Kinko’s. (Because T-Mobile uses the same basic cellular technology as AT&T Wireless and Cingular, there’s a chance it will roll out EDGE data service in the not-too-distant future.)
Other carriers support Wi-Fi, but place the priority on wide-area networks. Last year, Verizon quietly introduced the next generation of 1x data (called 1xEV-DO) in San Diego and Washington, DC. This new service offers true broadband connectivity: 300 to 500 Kbps, with bursts of over 1 Mbps. Verizon will take this service national, and plans to have it up and running in “many major cities” by the end of this summer.
While AT&T feels its EDGE network provides fast enough speeds for most users — enough to read e-mail and download attachments, says a company spokesman — it too has plans for a broadband offering, which should be up and running in San Francisco, Seattle and two other cities by the end of this year.