Which Wireless Service?

The choice isn't always clear, as mobile data services struggle to balance coverage and speed.

If you're investigating nationwide cellular plans for your company, there's one thing that will quickly become clear: Not all cellular services are created equal.

The six largest U.S. wireless license-holders run mobile networks that are in near-constant transition. Figuring out which services will best suit your users in terms of speed, coverage and service quality can be difficult.

The good news is that you can usually purchase a data service with a dual-mode device that also lets users make phone calls. Still, you must look at each carrier's coverage map, determine which colors correspond to which services and decide which service best matches each user group.

Awaiting Availability

If your users remain in a relatively confined region, it's simpler to determine if there are services for them.

For example, the city of Pueblo in south central Colorado had no wireless data options until AT&T Wireless Services Inc.'s Enhanced Data Rates for Global Evolution offering recently came to town. EDGE speeds average 100K to 130Kbit/sec.

Now, police officers are able to file reports from their patrol cars immediately after incidents occur, according to John Wilkinson, the city's IT director. "This is much more efficient than having officers wait to do this work at headquarters at the end of their shifts," he says.

AT&T's EDGE service, which is known for having holes, covers about 75% of the U.S. population. However, it suits the 44-square-mile area of Pueblo just fine. The service also enables officers to run checks against the Colorado Crime Information Center and National Crime Information Center databases. This prevents them from having to call into a dispatch center and wait in a queue behind emergency 911 calls.

"We think officers will perform more checks if they can do it themselves," says Wilkinson. An IT manager might do well to group users by degree of mobility and which applications they use and then match appropriate services to each group. "For example, knowledge workers often sit at Starbucks or at the airport with a laptop. In these places, Wi-Fi hot-spot services suffice," says Dave Passmore, an analyst at Burton Group in Midvale, Utah.

Wi-Fi hot spots use IEEE 802.11 LAN, not cellular, technology. They offer multimegabit speeds in public places where traveling workers are likely to linger. The trade-off is that the coverage is limited to that local venue and isn't oriented to broad roaming.

So Wi-Fi hot-spot services don't cut it for field service and transportation personnel, public safety officials and some salespeople. "These folks have a real need for a widespread broadband mobile service," Passmore says.

Case in point: Re/Max International Inc., a global real estate firm based in Greenwood Village, Colo., began offering AT&T Wireless' EDGE service to its agents in January.

"The Multiple Listing Service has pictures [of properties for sale]. Viewing them on a notebook computer when out with a client is a tremendous marketing tool," says Bruce Benham, Re/Max's senior vice president and chief technology officer.

He says agents can upload six to 10 pictures and run an attached video that offers a virtual tour of the property.

"Our associates aren't sitting in Starbucks—they are taking clients around. And they don't want to have to ask for an analog dial-up line at someone's house," Benham notes.

He says Re/Max tested both EDGE and AT&T's General Packet Radio Service, a technology that preceded EDGE. GPRS averages about 20K to 40Kbit/sec. but spans a wider footprint. "GPRS was clumsy for this application. You need at least 100Kbit/sec. to look at pictures," Benham says.

Mixing It Up Higher speeds and greater coverage would make wireless service more valuable to Washington-based National Public Radio Inc. Reporters at the nonprofit producer and distributor of radio programming transmit sound clips and file audio stories from the road using Verizon Wireless' 1x Evolution-Data Only (EV-DO) service where it's available. But 1xEV-DO, which offers speeds of 300K to 500Kbit/sec., is available only in Washington and San Diego. In the rest of the country, the fallback service is Verizon's 1xRTT network, with speeds of 40K to 60Kbit/sec.

Jane Holmes, manager of remote mobile services at NPR, makes this plea to Verizon: "Roll out more cities!"

Because of the fragmented nature of coverage and speed, NPR uses several networking technologies. For example, an NPR reporter aboard the campaign bus of Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential hopeful, came equipped with both a satellite phone and a Verizon 1xRTT data card.

"The satellite phone weighs 35 pounds. You have to set it up and make sure no one is in the way," Holmes says. "The reporter just used the 1xRTT Verizon card and never touched the satellite gear."

However, Holmes says, "even 1xRTT isn't available everywhere we want to go."

At the time of this writing, for instance, NPR was hoping to transmit music from the Gilmore Piano Festival, a two-week musical event in western Michigan. "But Verizon's 1xRTT map is kind of bare there," Holmes says. "So we'll have to see."

Where and How Fast?

Generally, coverage and speed are inversely proportional: The fastest services are available in the fewest places. For example, primary markets tend to be overserved with multiple services, while many rural areas remain ignored. "All wireless providers in northern Nevada have poor digital cell service," says a telecommunications engineer who works for a natural gas pipeline company that he asked not be identified. "I can understand ... there are many factors such as terrain obstacles and population density for providers to consider. But [Verizon's] 'Can you hear me now?' commercials really crack us up." And carriers that have tried to accommodate the underserved haven't fared well: Kirkland, Wash.-based Monet Mobile Networks Inc., which covered eight cities in Wisconsin, Minnesota and North and South Dakota with the nation's first commercial 1xEV-DO service, closed last month.

Verizon Wireless has committed to spending another $1 billion through 2005 to expand the coverage area of its 1xEV-DO service, dubbed BroadbandAccess. That investment is on top of its regular $4 billion annual network capital spending. The carrier hasn't announced which cities will get the service, but the size of the dollar figure bodes well for respectable coverage.

Still-higher-speed services are emerging, too. T1-like mobile speeds (1.5Mbit/sec., burstable to 3Mbit/sec.) are available in Raleigh-Durham and Chapel Hill, N.C., from Nextel Communications Inc. in Reston, Va.

However, the rest of the carrier's nationwide Motorola iDen-based network runs at 15K to 20Kbit/sec. While Nextel isn't yet committing to rolling out the megabit-speed technology nationwide, it does plan to deploy the next generation of iDen during the second half of this year.

The Nextel "WiDen" network will quadruple speeds to 60K to 80Kbit/sec. and cover 293 of the top 300 U.S. markets, says a Nextel spokesman. And AT&T plans to deploy Universal Mobile Telephone System technology in four markets serving 350,000 people by year's end. UMTS will be the first true-to-standard 3G, or third generation, service, running at about 2Mbit/sec. for stationary users. At What Cost?

Interestingly, most cellular data services are priced the same: about $80 monthly for unlimited usage, regardless of speed. Roaming charges of about $10 per megabyte apply when crossing carrier network boundaries.

"This needs to drop dramatically to achieve massive adoption," says Herschel Shosteck, president and chairman of The Shosteck Group, a wireless analysis firm in Wheaton, Md.

In the meantime, purchasers should weigh service cost against the value of the mobile application, advises Clint Wheelock, director of wireless research at In-Stat/MDR, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based market research firm.

"Enterprises might limit the scope of individuals allowed to get [unlimited] service," he says. "But for users with certain applications, data speeds [at 100Kbit/sec. and up] can really enhance productivity and are well worth the $80."

In-Stat/MDR recently completed a survey of about 1,200 mobile business users who ranked their carrier satisfaction levels. Verizon Wireless took top honors, with a 75% positive rating, followed by Nextel with 63% and T-Mobile with 62%. AT&T Wireless (47%), Sprint PCS (53%) and Cingular Wireless (56%) scored below-average rankings. T-Mobile and AT&T wireless subscribers were most likely to defect and move to other suppliers.

In fact, Wheelock predicts that Cingular Wireless' pending $41 billion acquisition of AT&T Wireless won't be good news for the customer service portion of user satisfaction ratings. "Usually, mergers are disruptive to customer service," he says.

But Re/Max's Benham says he's hoping for better coverage and enhanced services as a result of the combination of resources. "Between the two companies, I expect to see significant, enhanced services over the next few years," he says.

Wexler is a freelance writer in California's Silicon Valley. Contact her at joanie@jwexler.com.

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Today’s High-Speed Mobile Data Service Options

CARRIER FASTEST SERVICE OFFERED/
AVERAGE ACTUAL
SPEED *
COVERAGE REACH WI-FI SERVICE?/
NUMBER OF HOT SPOTS **
AT&T Wireless EDGE/100K to 130Kbit/sec. 6,500 U.S. cities and towns, 220 million people Yes/800
Cingular Wireless EDGE/100K to 130Kbit/sec. 13 states No
Nextel Flarion FLASH-OFDM/1Mbit/sec. Raleigh-Durham and Chapel Hill, N.C. No
Sprint PCS 1xRTT/50K to 70Kbit/sec.
240 million people
Yes/2,000
T-Mobile GPRS/20K to 40Kbit/sec. More than 9,000 U.S. cities and towns; 224 million people Yes/4,200
Verizon Wireless 1xEV-DO/300K to 500Kbit/sec. Greater Washington area and San Diego Yes/nearly 1,000
*Most services listed will “fall back” to slower but farther-reaching services when users are out of coverage range. **Some hot-spot availability is through roaming/resale agreements with wireless ISPs and aggregators, such as Airpath Wireless Inc., Boingo Wireless Inc., StayOnline Inc., STSN Inc. and Wayport Inc.
Source: Information supplied by the carriers

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