A Speed Trial for Wireless

If you want to surf the Net from your laptop or mobile phone, not all services are created equal. Here's a guide to finding the fastest

Reader Tom Manvydas is looking for help sorting through the various wireless services boasting Internet access at high speeds. He writes: "Has there been any evaluation of wireless broadband services? I have Verizon [Wireless] right now, but the service is atrociously slow. Dial-up connections are faster. I'm thinking of trying another service, like Sprint, but this won't solve my problem if they're all bad."

My experience with Verizon Wireless' (VZ) BroadbandAccess service has been generally positive, although your connection speed will vary depending on coverage. First, you have to make certain you're really getting the speedy service known as EV-DO, which is capable of delivering downloads at 256 kilobits per second or more. To find out on a handheld device, look for a little "EV" icon where the display shows connection information. If it says "1X," that means that you have fallen back to the much slower 1X-RTT service, which only gives speeds comparable to dial-up phone connections.

On a laptop, the Verizon Wireless software will indicate whether your connection is BroadbandAccess (EV-DO) or NationalAccess (1X-RTT). Sprint's (S) high-speed service uses the same technology as Verizon Wireless and should offer comparable results, although depending on location, the actual performance of one or the other may be better.


  Cingular's (SBC) data network is based mostly on so-called EDGE technology, which provides speeds somewhat better than dial-up -- around 100 kilobits per second. In some locations, you'll fall back to the predecessor technology, which is known as GPRS and is slower than dial-up. Cingular has rolled out a high-speed service called HSDPA, roughly comparable to EV-DO, in 16 cities. It plans to widen the area covered by HSDPA, which stands for High Speed Data Packet Access, this year.

T-Mobile, which has invested heavily in Wi-Fi, has been a laggard in providing cellular-based high-speed data services. It's skipping EDGE and plans to begin rolling out HSDPA by the end of this year.

That leaves Nextel, which has no real high-speed data service. But that problem will be cured through the integration of its network with that of its new parent, Sprint.

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