October 19, 2005, 2:00 PM — The days of simply giving traveling employees a cell phone for talking and a laptop for dial-up data are long gone, replaced by a complex landscape of overlapping choices. There are decisions to be made regarding devices, carrier contracts, performance and reach -- with all the major technologies offering moving targets to boot.
In addition to Wi-Fi wireless LANs and cellular data, both of which keep getting faster, there are two major emerging options that use OFDM (orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing). Most highly hyped is mobile WiMAX, but another system called FLASH-OFDM (Fast Low-latency Access with Seamless Handoff-OFDM) has already been deployed and is now owned by cellular giant Qualcomm Inc.
The Wi-Fi versus cellular question poses speed against coverage. Public Wi-Fi hot spots can offer several megabits per second shared among users in a coffee shop or airport. The still-emerging IEEE 802.11n specification is intended to boost that speed to about 100M bit/sec and improve range, and it may eventually show up in hot spots. But despite the chain operations of companies such as T-Mobile USA Inc. and the aggregation of sites by service providers such as iPass, hot spot users still frequently have to set up and pay for new accounts.
Also 3G (third-generation) cellular data services offer coverage across a metropolitan area -- though they can vary from one location to the next -- and the number of metropolitan areas covered is growing. For example, Verizon Wireless Inc. now offers the high-speed EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) flavor of its CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) service in 84 U.S. markets, and Sprint Nextel Corp. offers it in 75 markets, according to the companies. Sprint Nextel plans to gradually upgrade its network to the next version of EV-DO, called Revision A, in late 2006 and early 2007. Verizon also will use Revision A but hasn't said when. The new version is expected to significantly boost upstream speed.
On the other side of the 3G fence is UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System), a step on the migration path of GSM operators such as Cingular Wireless LLC. It is now available in six markets but will reach 15 markets to 20 markets by year's end, according to Cingular spokesman Ritch Blasi. Those rollouts will use a new version of the technology, called HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access), which will match the average speed of EV-DO as quoted by Sprint Nextel and Verizon. (All 3G networks have "burst" speeds that may be available in locations with low congestion.)
Blasi gave two selling points for UMTS over EV-DO: It carries both voice and data, so users can talk while using data on the same device, and it's used more widely outside the U.S. Cingular plans to offer in the first half of next year a dual-band PC Card UMTS modem to reach both overseas and U.S. networks, Blasi says.