A Wireless Net That Leaves Wi-Fi Behind

Verizon's experimental service in Washington shows promise

I'm riding in a New York-bound Amtrak train, pounding away on my laptop, downloading e-mail, and zipping through Web pages at broadband speed. No, Amtrak hasn't installed Wi-Fi wireless access aboard the Acela Express, nice as that would be. This communications miracle is a new Verizon Wireless (VZ ) service called BroadbandAccess, that gives laptops on the move superfast wireless access to the Internet.

But some 10 minutes out of Washington's Union Station, reality sets in. I stay connected to the Web, but the speed drops to about that of a dial-up connection. It stays that way, with occasional dead spots, all the way to Penn Station.

This experience nicely sums up BroadbandAccess: It offers impressive speed, but it's available only in Washington and its close-in suburbs, as well as clear across the country in the San Diego area. I found downloads consistently hit speeds at a bit over 300 kilobits per second, at the low end of Verizon's claimed range of 300 to 500 kbps. (As in most broadband setups, uploads are slower.) That's about half the speed of most residential broadband service but five to six times faster than Verizon's standard NationalAccess wireless data network or a similar service from Sprint PCS (page 131) (PCS ). For Web browsing, BroadbandAccess was nearly as fast as the Wi-Fi networks found in such hot spots as hotel lobbies and Starbucks (SBUX ) cafés.

BUT DON'T HOLD YOUR BREATH waiting for the new service to be available in your neighborhood. Verizon has made no commitment to a wider rollout, and no other carrier is planning to offer a similar service anytime soon. The reason is that the Verizon experiment is using a variant of Qualcomm's CDMA technology called 1X Evolution Data Only, or EVDO. The big question is whether there's a business case for a large-scale investment that only provides data service. Verizon is charging $79.99 a month for unlimited data -- the same price it charges for its slower, but broadly available, NationalAccess data service. Sprint, the other national carrier using the same CDMA technology as Verizon, says it plans to wait for an even faster service that also provides for expanded voice capacity, called Evolution Data and Voice, to be available, probably in 2005.

Meanwhile, AT&T Wireless (AWE ), Cingular, and T-Mobile, which use the GSM technology dominant in most of the world, are migrating to a new data network that will give, at best, half the speed of EVDO.

BroadbandAccess is currently available only on laptops using a PC Card radio modem made by Sierra Wireless (SWIR ) ($150 after a $100 rebate). Setup consists of installing the software and inserting the card. When you click "connect" on the Verizon software, the modem tries to log on to the EVDO network. If it can't, it will connect to the slower NationalAccess network. If you are connected but move out of EVDO coverage, you switch to the slower network while maintaining your connection.

I found two minor downsides. Connecting to either the fast or slower network was sluggish. And often, after the notebook had gone into power-saving suspend mode, the modem refused to reconnect until I shut down the Connection Manager software and removed and reinserted the card.

Some analysts have argued that the rapid growth of public Wi-Fi networks make efforts like EVDO irrelevant. I disagree. Wi-Fi is faster and cheaper, but it hasn't shown that it can develop, either as a technology or as a business, beyond a series of isolated hot spots. Broadband access lets you connect anywhere, without logging on to different networks, and lets you stay connected while moving. The question is whether there's enough demand to make the economics work. Verizon's test should give us the answer.

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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