Walt Mossberg

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Surfin U.S.A.

For years Americans who accessed the Internet via cell phone networks looked across the ocean to Europe with envy. The speed of American cell phone networks badly trailed those in Europe.

But not anymore. Gradually, and with relatively little fanfare, Verizon Wireless has deployed a nationwide cellular data network in the United States that blows away the fastest widely deployed networks in Europe, the so-called 3G networks that have been rolled out there to huge publicity. And Sprint is starting its own rollout of a similar speedy network based on the same technology Verizon uses.

That technology is called EV-DO, for Evolution-Data Only, or Evolution-Data Optimized. It is the first wireless technology deployed over a wide area that matches the speed of home broadband — at least the slower reaches of that wired service.

Unlike the most common form of wireless broadband, Wi-Fi, the new EV-DO service doesn’t rely on hot spots. It’s available all over a metro area, wherever there is cell phone service — even in a moving car.

Verizon has been rolling out the new service, city by city, over the past year or so, and it is now available in 61 major metropolitan areas and 65 airports across the country, according to the company. Because it’s based on a technology called CDMA, developed by the U.S. company Qualcomm and not widely used in Europe, EV-DO has given the U.S. an edge, even if only for a while.

You can get the service in two ways. First, you can buy a data-enabled smart phone, like the $600 Samsung SCH-i730, which can handle e-mail, instant messaging and Web access over EV-DO. Or you can buy a wireless EV-DO modem card for your laptop, like the $170 Kyocera KPC650, which allows all your Internet-oriented PC software to access the Web via EV-DO.

There are also different rates. Verizon has been charging $80 a month for an unlimited EV-DO data plan. But recently, it cut that price to $50 a month for people who already have a Verizon voice calling plan.

For those with mainstream phones that are mainly designed for voice calling but are EV-DO capable, Verizon offers a $15-a-month plan that mostly covers viewing short video clips on an EV-DO service called V Cast, but also offers unlimited, albeit much clumsier, Internet access.

How fast is EV-DO? Verizon is predicting average speeds of between 400 and 700 kilobits per second. That’s up to 10 times its previous fastest data speed, on an older network called 1X. In my tests, Verizon’s promise proved realistic, and I often topped 700 kbps.

To put those speeds in perspective, many wired DSL plans in American homes operate at speeds of 700 kbps or less, so EV-DO is in the same ballpark.

There are faster wired broadband connections available, from both DSL and cable modem providers. Many homes with cable modems have service that runs at 3 megabits a second, or four times faster than EV-DO. And some Wi-Fi hot spots may operate at faster speeds as well, though that depends a lot on how they are set up. But EV-DO is clearly a broadband service, at least by the American definition of the word “broadband.” (In Asia, they laugh at our definition. They think of broadband as being 20 to 50 megabits per second.)

So how does it compare with similar services in Europe? European cell phone companies offer better phones, better coverage, and better features and options, in general, than do their American counterparts. But strictly measured on data speed in widely employed networks, they’ve lost their edge. Their high-speed wireless 3G technology peaks at 384 kbps, which is less than the minimum speeds Verizon is promising. And such peaks in any system are rare outside the lab. (EV-DO peaks at 2.4 megabits a second.) Actual throughput with European 3G networks averages 250 to 300 kilobits a second.

In my tests of EV-DO with a laptop card, I averaged 585 kbps. And with the Samsung EV-DO phone, I was able to achieve EV-DO speeds of up to 534 kilobits per second.

The U.S. edge won’t last forever. New generations of the technology used in Europe, to be rolled out in the next few years, will top EV-DO. But there are faster successors in the EV-DO line of technology as well, so Verizon (and Sprint, America’s other big CDMA carrier) have their own future weapons. It’s a battle that should continue, as rival technologies steal the lead back and forth in their quest for dominance.

How does EV-DO compare with Wi-Fi? I love Wi-Fi to death and use it in my home and office, at airports and coffee shops. Even if you have an EV-DO modem in your laptop, I recommend having Wi-Fi as well, especially since it can be faster, and it is treated by Windows and the Mac operating system as a network. EV-DO isn’t quite as seamless on laptops: It gets treated like a really fast dial-up modem call, and the required software is a bit clunky.

But Wi-Fi is limited to places with hot spots or transmitters, at least until citywide deployments become a reality. And using it on the road often means exorbitant short-term fees to a variety of network operators, fees that could each top the $50 a month Verizon is charging its voice plan customers for unlimited use of EV-DO.

By contrast, with EV-DO, you pay one fee to one carrier and can use it anywhere in a city. In my tests, I was able to connect in restaurants, parking lots and even moving cars. And unlike Wi-Fi, with EV-DO, if you leave a coverage area, you don’t get cut off. Verizon merely slows down your connection to the pace of the 1X network.

EV-DO may even find a place in the home, replacing a wired DSL line. If all you use are laptops with EV-DO cards and your home is covered by EV-DO service, then you have all you need for broadband at home. And several companies are working on home wireless base stations that would work with an EV-DO laptop card.

The downsides of using EV-DO at home are that it’s much costlier than wired DSL or cable service, which typically runs $15 to $45 a month, and slower than any wired broadband but the slowest DSL plans. In fact, I believe one reason Verizon has priced it relatively high compared with wired broadband is to discourage home use, which might overload its network.

But for frequent travelers who rely heavily on EV-DO on the road, it may make better sense to just use it at home instead of buying wired broadband service as well, unless of course you have family members who do most of their surfing at home.

So, true, unbounded wireless broadband has arrived in the U.S., if you live in the right place and can afford it. Now you don’t have to take guff from Europeans anymore — at least about wireless networks.

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