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Wireless data service options explode

Wi-Fi, EV-DO and other offerings provide alternatives to wireline services.

By , Network World
April 19, 2004 12:09 AM ET

Network World - In a few short years, the number of wireless connections to network services is expected to eclipse that of wireline connections.

One key enabler is the emergence of new wireless data services intended to provide high-speed access to corporate computing resources for mobile end users, those at remote sites and even those at primary offices.

"The expectation is that [users] have broadband connectivity wherever they go," says Mark Lowenstein, managing director of wireless consultancy Mobile Ecosystem.

The wide-area cellular network will be the default network for data connectivity for travelers, Lowenstein says. Then there will be pockets of more compelling broadband coverage, such as Wi-Fi or WiMax.

Here's a look at how some of these offerings are shaking out.

Wi-Fi and EV-DO

Depending on whom you talk to or what you read, Evolution-Data Only is supposed to kill off Wi-Fi services, Wi-Fi is supposed to kill off EV-DO, or the two are supposed to coexist in harmony.

The more familiar Wi-Fi enables 11M to 54M bit/sec wireless access within 300 feet of an access point. The less familiar EV-DO is a 3G cellular WAN technology intended to turn your cell phone into a powerful data transmission tool. It supports speeds of up to 2.4M bit/sec, far exceeding previous generation cellular transmission rates of 144K bit/sec.

EV-DO service is hard to find, although some big service providers are starting to roll it out. Verizon, for example, has two trials - one in San Diego, the other in Washington, D.C. - with plans to expand to more metropolitan areas later this year. Monet Mobile Networks, a small operator, launched service in Duluth, Minn., two years ago.

Wi-Fi hot spots are more plentiful, but customer acceptance has been lukewarm because of pricing and coverage issues, among others. Workers accessing the service at hot spots in coffee houses and airports have been charged multiple connection fees between $6 and $10 when moving between hot spots. Coverage has been spotty, which makes signing up for monthly service with one provider risky and potentially expensive.

Such issues explain why some users are turning to their cellular providers, some of which have EV-DO networks. Although data rates are slower, service is "free" under existing cellular contracts, and quality and coverage are predictable.

Nonetheless, Wi-Fi service providers see their offerings living peacefully alongside EV-DO.

"Is Wi-Fi going to be everywhere? Everywhere where it makes sense, yes," says Dan Lowden, vice president of marketing for Wayport, which provides hot-spot access in hotels and airports. "Customers that we serve are always looking to be best connected. When they're in a hot spot, they're best connected to Wi-Fi; when they're not in a hot spot, they're best connected to a wide-area network."

Lowden says Wayport connects 350,000 people to its service per month and that the number is growing 15% to 20% per month.

Boingo Wireless, a company that aggregates hot spots to facilitate roaming, says equipment pricing favors Wi-Fi over EV-DO. Many mobile devices are or will be Wi-Fi-enabled, while EV-DO cards for laptops or PDAs cost between $200 and $300, says Tamara Steffens, vice president of sales at Boingo.

It's the subscription rate that's turning users away from Wi-Fi as operators price services high to recoup their capital investment in access points and other equipment to Wi-Fi-enable their outlets, Steffens says. Lack of roaming between networks is also an issue, she says.

"We're going to have to convince those hot-spot operators that roaming will actually drive transactions and that volume is really where the entire market makes it," Steffens says. "As soon as that subscription rate for Wi-Fi service comes down and the concept of roaming is solved, the volume of transactions will go up and I think you'll see the whole model fall into place."

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