Cellular Nets Reach DSL Speed

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PC cards from Verizon (left) and Sony Ericsson connect your laptop to fast cellular networks.
PC cards from Verizon (left) and Sony Ericsson connect your laptop to fast cellular networks.
Photograph: Marc Simon
Want a very high-speed network that lets you use your notebook to go online practically anywhere you have cellular coverage? Done--at least for some of us.

Though new high-speed services from AT&T and Verizon Wireless don't quite fulfill the promise of so-called 3G (third-generation) cellular networks to combine DSL-grade speeds with the ubiquity of cell phone service, each constitutes a major move in that direction.

Do they spell doom for Wi-Fi hot spots? Not yet; they're too costly and slow. But 3G networks bear close watching.

Speedy but Sparse

Verizon Wireless offers its EVDO (Evolution Data Only) service only in Washington, D.C., and San Diego, but it has the fastest download speeds we've seen on a cell network.

Verizon pegs EVDO's typical download speeds at 300 to 500 kilobits per second, with bursts of up to 2 megabits per second. In my tests in San Diego, speeds ranged from 180 to 300 kbps, with bursts of 500 kpbs or more. That's considerably faster than the 10 to 50 kbps I saw outside EVDO coverage.

I used the Verizon Wireless PC 5220 EVDO modem card ($250 before a $100 mail-in rebate). A nice plus: The card is compatible with Verizon's nationwide NationalAccess network (using older CDMA 2000 1x technology) and, in the absence of EVDO, reverts seamlessly to it.

Verizon charges $80 per month for unlimited data-only services (voice not included), regardless of whether you're on the EVDO or the slower network. Verizon has not announced plans to expand its EVDO service, however.

Widespread Edge

AT&T's EDGE (Enhanced Data for Global Evolution) data-only service is slower--AT&T touts average speeds of 100 to 130 kbps with bursts up to 200 kbps--but available throughout its GSM/GPRS network.

In my tests using a Sony Ericsson GC-82 EDGE PC Card modem in San Francisco, I generally saw speeds of 80 to 150 kbps. Performance was even faster with the included compression utility set to its highest level. The card is $250. You can get a $100 mail-in rebate if you sign up for a two-year unlimited-use plan at $80 a month; but you can pay as little as $30 a month for 10MB of traffic.

Other carriers will speed up, too. Sprint, which uses CDMA technology, will probably switch to EVDV (Evolution Data Voice) around 2006. Unlike Verizon's EVDO, EVDV improves voice and data networks.

Cingular's EDGE service launched in 2003; T-Mobile will debut its service later this year. The next step for GSM/GPRS is UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System). It will permit speeds of up to 2 mbps eventually. AT&T says it will launch UMTS service in several cities later in 2004.

For the present, people who need wireless Internet access intermittently are better off using Wi-Fi hot spots, which are faster (up to 11 mbps for 802.11b, 54 mbps for 802.11a and .11g) and cost less than competing cellular services. As faster cellular services become more widely available, however, travelers who need ubiquitous Net access will find them increasingly attractive.

High-Speed Cellular: Slouching Toward 3G

While Sprint and Verizon use CDMA and its successors (EVDO and EVDV) to attain high wireless data speeds, AT&T, Cingular, and T-Mobile use GSM/GPRS and its successors (EDGE and UMTS).

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