High-Speed Mobile Wireless Takes Three Big Steps Forward
High-speed wireless Internet access edged closer to reality last week, as three of the four top U.S. cellular telephone carriers promised to start providing supercharged wireless service this year, backed by multibillion-dollar infrastructure contracts.
Lacking, however, were details on pricing -- the issue most important to customers.
At the annual conference here for the Washington-based Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), Verizon Wireless kicked off the broadband wireless buzz with a $5 billion order for third-generation (3G) network equipment from Lucent Technologies Inc. in Murray Hill, N.J. The deal will allow Verizon to provide 144K bit/sec. service in unspecified markets before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Kansas City, Mo.-based Sprint PCS Group said it will spend $2 billion during the next two years to provide cellular phone service that will start at 144K bit/sec., ramp up to 307K bit/sec. next year and reach 2.4M to 3.5M bit/sec. in 2004. Verizon Wireless in Bedminster, N.J., will provide similar throughputs, analysts and industry experts said, since Verizon and Sprint PCS will build 3G networks based on Code Division Multiple Access technology developed by Qualcomm Inc. in San Diego.
Charles Levine, president of Sprint PCS, said that despite the sizable investment required to upgrade the company's networks, the actual work should be relatively easy. "All we have to do is switch out cards [in network equipment], while other carriers will have to bring in forklift loads of gear," he said.
AT&T Wireless Services Inc. Chief Technology Officer Rod Nelson said his firm is still on schedule to roll out its 3G network based on both the Global System for Mobile Communications and the Time Division Multiplex Access standards in the second half of this year, with full deployment in 2003. However, a press release from the Redmond, Wash.-based firm said that the 2003 rollout is "subject to the availability of network equipment and customer devices."
While the carriers trumpeted their infrastructure plans, they kept mum about pricing. Levine repeatedly declined to address Sprint's pricing at a news conference here, saying only that high-speed data service would command a premium over current voice plans that charge approximately $100 for 1,000 minutes per month.
"None of the carriers have talked about their pricing plans, and without pricing, how real is 3G?" said Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass. "Right now, all we have are statements of intent. It is going to happen, but it will probably take longer than anyone thinks."
Jerry Yang, co-founder of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Internet portal Yahoo Inc., said that average wireless connection speeds of 9.6K bit/sec. suffer "in a world where competitiveness is based on how fast you can deliver bits." For wireless carriers to compete with fixed-line connections, they need to figure out "how to shove more data down their pipes," said Yang. "Until that happens, there will be less emphasis on data than in fixed line."
Users welcomed the 3G network rollout plans, saying that without higher speeds, the wireless Internet can't keep up with the wired Internet.
FedEx Corp., which operates a nationwide private wireless network capable of speeds of 19.2K bit/sec., has already started talking to carriers about their ability to provide higher-speed service, said Randy Ford, the Memphis-based company's manager of wireless system design. "We are looking at new technologies to augment our private network to provide us with even more information faster," he said.