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A Pocketful Of Promise From Verizon

Because it signals the coming of age of wireless multimedia services in the United States, VCast will be a closely watched test of whether and how much Americans will be willing to pay to be entertained by phone. Sprint, which pioneered its own video service in 2003 over a slower network, has vowed to upgrade its network this year to offer speeds rivaling Verizon's. Cingular, the nation's largest carrier after its purchase of AT&T Wireless, is working toward the same goal.

But Verizon's simultaneous rollout of two new services highlights one big challenge all the carriers face as they try to persuade Americans to ante up more for faster access to the mobile Internet: trying to explain exactly what people will be paying for. Often, the differences between these services are hard to grasp until you actually live with them.

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I confess I considered the idea behind VCast trivial until I tested it. I mean, what self-respecting news junkie would waste time watching two-minute episodes of "Sunset Hotel" when she could be reading the latest battlefield reports from Iraq? Moreover, it's not live video; you have to download each snippet one by one, then wait 15 to 30 seconds for it to buffer before it plays. Still, some of the video struck me as surprisingly clear and bright. And what fuzziness did appear was less than I've seen in earlier cell phone video. The bigger surprise was the variety of content in VCast's menu. For $15 a month, it struck me as the kind of fare young people will snack on ferociously in down times.

Clearly, though, VCast-equipped phones are about entertainment, not productivity. While VCast comes with unlimited access to the Web at no extra charge, it is only through Verizon's specially formatted Mobile Web 2.0 area. And that area uses an older data display format known as "WAP," which is considerably clumsier than the Pocket PC Internet experience.

I did find that the faster speed available from EV-DO made reading news on a VCast phone a tad more tolerable than it has been on past WAP phones, but it was no match for the Pocket PC. Yet technically, both the VCast phones and the new Audiovox Pocket PC offer unlimited access to the Web.

Moreover, the Pocket PC isn't compatible with VCast, so it won't let users pay the extra $15 a month to sample video on demand.

And that, I am afraid, typifies the confusing trade-offs cellular carriers will be forcing us to make as they experiment with a ton of new mobile devices designed to do everything except bake bread.

Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@washpost.com.

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