Users awash in emerging wireless options

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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.

3G is now being integrated into mass-production notebook PCs: Dell made a splash last month by announcing plans with Verizon for EV-DO notebooks and with Cingular for HSDPA-equipped systems. It is also emerging in a growing number of handheld devices. The Microsoft Windows Mobile-based Treo phone that Palm Inc. announced last month will use Verizon's EV-DO network.

Mobile WiMAX, a variant of the fixed WiMAX that is expected to emerge in standard form later this year, has strong backing from Intel but is unlikely to ship until 2007. As with Wi-Fi, high volumes, economies of scale and global compatibility will drive its success, according to Intel, though standardization and radio frequency issues need to be worked out.

Proponents say the technology will deliver metropolitan-area coverage to users in motion, but at higher data speeds than 3G and with better multimedia performance. Some observers say it will be embraced mostly by cellular competitors that don't have 3G spectrum.

Flash-OFDM was pioneered by Flarion Technologies Inc., which earlier this year agreed to be bought by Qualcomm. Flarion networks have been deployed by a few carriers and been the focus of trials by others, including Nextel Communications Inc. It is designed to deliver speeds in the same range as mobile WiMAX and can be used in a wide range of frequency bands.

Laptops should be equipped with Wi-Fi, which is generally the best way for workers to stay connected when at home or in different offices, says Bob Egan, an analyst at Tower Group. However, there are better ways to tackle high-speed data on the road than turning on Wi-Fi at a hot spot, even with an aggregator to handle accounts with different providers, he says.

"It's complex, it's hard, you can't scale it, and the success of Wi-Fi and these public access areas is also destroying its usability, primarily because of interference," Egan says.

Wide-area wireless is likely to be the best long-term solution, according to Egan. By the time mobile WiMAX is widely available, it won't have a big edge in performance or price over 3G, he says. But Egan advises against buying a laptop with a built-in 3G card. A PC Card modem bought separately from the notebook is the best bet, because when an improved network technology such as EV-DO Revision A comes along it can be swapped out, he says. Even better, large companies that buy a lot of gear and services from a mobile operator should be able to get the cards for "next to zero." A notebook manufacturer wouldn't offer such a deal, he says.

One hurdle that remains is related to those great deals. The 3G cards that U.S. mobile operators sell today are locked to their networks, so corporations will have to sign on to a long-term contract to get a discount. An end to that practice, which could happen if 3G cards turn out to be a big success, would change the equation for enterprise customers and for carriers' WiMAX rivals, in Egan's view.

Buying a notebook with a carrier-locked 3G radio would tie a company too closely to a carrier, agrees analyst Eddie Hold of Current Analysis Inc. But he disagrees with Egan's view on overall strategy.

A PC Card modem for EV-DO sucks up notebook battery power more than built-in Wi-Fi and doesn't deliver the same class of performance, Hold says. The tale is not told solely in bit-per-second performance, says Hold. For example, there is greater latency on an EV-DO network, which can cause excruciating delays on Microsoft Exchange as the client software swaps data with the remote server.

Hold advises buying 3G cards only for the few employees who really need them. Most can get their jobs done at locations where Wi-Fi is available, he says. Those who actually do work farther afield or in transit are usually doing something that could be accomplished on a handheld device such as a BlackBerry, which doesn't require broadband speeds, Hold says.

Over time, companies may be able to buy combinations of these technologies. Sprint Nextel holds licenses across much of the U.S. for spectrum that may be approved for mobile WiMAX, and Hold says T-Mobile may upgrade its GSM-based infrastructure to UMTS to supplement its network of Wi-Fi hot spots.

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