Walt Mossberg

Cingular Joins Rivals With Fast, Reliable Wireless Broadband

Gradually, over the past couple of years, it has become possible in many major U.S. cities to get wireless Internet access, at speeds comparable with those of wired home DSL lines, without having to be anywhere near a wireless “hot spot” in a cafe or hotel or airport.

These wireless broadband connections, available over a wide swath of the major metropolitan areas where they are offered, have been sold by two big cellphone companies, Verizon Wireless and Sprint. Both charge $60 a month for unlimited use of the services, which Verizon calls BroadbandAccess and Sprint calls Mobile Broadband. Both companies’ services are based on a technology called EV-DO, which stands for Evolution-Data Only.

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This is a revolutionary development. It means that, with a properly equipped laptop or smart phone, you can now get enough speed on a wireless connection to do everything you would do with a fast Internet connection at your desk — stream video, download large Web sites, open large email attachments. And you don’t have to shell out $4 for a Venti latte just to gain access to a Wi-Fi hot spot.

Not only that, but these fast, new networks have, for the first time in years, given the U.S. the edge over Europe in cellular wireless data networks. Actual speeds on the EV-DO networks tend to be 600-700 kilobits a second, which is double or triple the actual speeds of the fastest widely deployed cellphone networks in Europe. Even the lowest speed the U.S. companies promise, 400 kbps, is faster than the maximum speed of today’s common European systems.

Now, this American trend has taken another step forward. Last month, Cingular Wireless announced it is leaping into the broadband wireless arena. It rolled out a service called BroadbandConnect to compete with Verizon and Sprint.

Like its competitors, Cingular is charging $60 a month for unlimited use of its service, and it is promising speeds averaging 400-700 kbps — about what you’d actually see with the slowest home DSL services. But Cingular’s new offering is based on a different technology, called HSDPA, for High Speed Downlink Packet Access. It’s the successor technology to the one being used today in Europe.

Because of its late start, Cingular’s wireless broadband service is much less widely deployed than its Verizon and Sprint competitors. It is available in only 16 major cities — Austin, Texas; Baltimore; Boston; Chicago; Dallas; Houston; Las Vegas; Phoenix; Portland, Ore.; Salt Lake City; San Diego; San Francisco; San Jose, Calif.; Seattle; Tacoma, Wash., and Washington, D.C.

By contrast, Verizon’s wireless broadband service can be used in 180 major markets, and Sprint’s covers more than 100. But Cingular is planning to have most major markets online by year end. Currently, the service is available on laptops using special wireless modem cards Cingular is selling for $99, after rebates. Eventually, it will also be available on smart phones.

I’ve been testing the Cingular BroadbandConnect service on a laptop around Washington, and I like it. It’s very fast — a bit faster, in my tests, than Verizon’s service. And it proved reliable, connecting properly every time. In tests in both downtown D.C. and a suburb about 15 miles away, the Cingular service averaged 640 kilobits a second, roughly 6-7 times the speed I have seen with EDGE, the company’s older data service.

In my tests, I used both of the laptop cards so far available for the service, the Sierra Wireless AC860 and the Novatel U730. Both did the job, but the Sierra model was consistently faster. In the same location, on the same laptop, within the same 30-minute period, the Sierra card averaged 689 kbps while the Novatel card averaged 449 kbps.

This may be because the Sierra card has a long, thin protruding antenna while the Novatel model uses an internal antenna. But the Sierra design can be annoying. You have to remove the antenna for safekeeping when it’s not in use, lest it snap off and get lost.

Like similar cards for Verizon and Sprint, these Cingular modems pop into the card slot on the side of your laptop. So far, they work only with Windows machines, not Macintoshes. And they require software supplied by Cingular to connect to the network. The company says Lenovo and Dell plan to build modems for the Cingular service into some laptop models later this year.

Why would you prefer a service like this to just using Wi-Fi? I love Wi-Fi, and it can often be even faster than these new networks from the cellphone companies. But with Wi-Fi, you have to find a hot spot, and you usually have to sign up with an access provider, which may charge high hourly fees and may not have service at the next hot spot you visit.

The biggest downside of the Cingular service — and those of its competitors — is cost. The $60 monthly tab, which usually requires purchase of a voice plan as well, is higher than what wired home broadband typically costs.

But if you are a frequent business traveler, it can pay for itself pretty quickly by allowing you to forgo the typical $10-$12 daily fee for Internet connections in hotels. And it can be a lifesaver if you really need fast Net access in some location where Wi-Fi isn’t available.

Citywide wireless broadband is now real — and widely available — in the U.S. Take that, Europe.

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