I was in a Las Vegas cab line two weeks ago when I felt the first pangs of mobile Internet addiction.
The minute I realized the wait would be long, I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out the new Pocket PC from Verizon Wireless that I've been testing. For the next half-hour, I alternately chatted with the man next to me in line and read the morning news at my favorite Web sites on the Audiovox XV6600 phone, which doubles as an electronic organizer. I confess I did the same the next day on a noisy bus ride, nodding politely as my seatmate carried on about current events while I kept peeking at the screen in my hand.
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Las Vegas, along with Washington and Baltimore, is among the 32 cities where Verizon Wireless has upgraded its cellular network to offer ultra-fast wireless Internet access -- at speeds roughly equivalent to those available from wired DSL networks. Until now, the company's year-old "BroadbandAccess" data service had been available only to laptop users, who pay $80 a month for unlimited Internet access and have to buy a special modem card.
But the Pocket PC I've been testing is one of two new devices -- the other being a line of flip-phones -- that Verizon is finally rolling out to let people subscribe to its BroadbandAccess data network at significantly lower monthly fees.
The Audiovox XV6600, which went on sale this week, is the pricier of the two options and is aimed at busy professionals. It runs Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system, sports a slide-out keyboard letting users type with their thumbs, and provides Web POP e-mail access along with a new way to retrieve corporate e-mail called VZEmail.
I found surfing the Web on this device addictive, even on its relatively small screen. Partly that was because it runs a version of Internet Explorer customized for tiny phones, and partly because it delivers data at speeds of 300 to 500 kilobits per second when connected to Verizon's BroadbandAccess network (which also goes by the name of its geeky technology, EV-DO). When the EV-DO signal wasn't present, the Pocket PC switched automatically to Verizon's slower network, which blankets most of the country.
Unfortunately, this new rival to the BlackBerry and Treo devices costs $550 with a two-year contract -- plus $45 a month for unlimited Internet access on top of a standard calling plan. So the price of satisfying my craving for speedy mobile Internet access this way would run over $1,000 in the first year.
Starting Feb. 1, though, Verizon Wireless will introduce a cheaper line of handsets that also can access its BroadbandAccess network, though in a more limited fashion. The first announced is the LG VX 8000 camera phone, which sells for $200 after a $70 rebate. Its most appealing feature probably won't be the stereo sound or picture-taking abilities, though. More likely it will be the access it offers to the new video-on-demand subscription service Verizon Wireless is also launching Feb. 1.
Called VCast, the service will cost $15 a month on top of any voice plan and will provide about 300 fresh video clips daily. Among the VCast mini-programs I previewed this week were prerecorded newscasts averaging one to three minutes from CNN, NBC and Marketwatch, including a bunch of "NBC News Inaugural Minute" snippets recapping the inaugurations of presidents Nixon and Clinton. There were also football highlights from ESPN and Fox Sports; micro-cartoons from "Sesame Street," a magical routine from Comedy Central and weather forecasts from AccuWeather.
Subscribers will also be able to watch musical entertainment from MTV and an original lineup of "mobisodes," a new mobile entertainment format being created for cell phones that attempts to cram a story into two or three minutes of video. Itty-bitty programming coming soon includes mobisodes of the TV series "24" created just for phones. VCast will charge extra for some premium content, such as 3-D games and music.