By Christopher Stern Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 23, 2003; Page E01
Inside a white van decked out with computer screens on the back of each seat, two Lucent Technologies Inc. technicians eagerly put their company's new wireless data network through its paces.
As the van rolls around a parking lot, one techie taps at a keyboard, and the screens jump from one Web site to another. Even the pages full of connection-clogging photos and graphics pop up at a speed rivaling any desktop computer tethered to the Internet by a cable or a telephone line.
For a grand finale, one of the technicians tunes into CNBC via the Internet. A dial-up connection would produce herky-jerky pictures and tinny sounds, but here the financial news channel comes in loud and clear.
The technology, known as EvDO (Evolution Data Only), provides wireless data connections that are 10 times as fast as a regular modem. Proponents say EvDO offers huge advantages over WiFi, another wireless data technology that is popping up around the country in hotel lobbies and coffee shops, and that it may even be the long sought path around local telephone and cable companies' lock on the high-speed Internet market in most residential areas.
But after learning some hard lessons in the last few years, the U.S. wireless industry is skittish about investing heavily in anything that does not have immediate promise of improving its bottom line.
EvDO would require wireless companies to spend billions of dollars to buy additional spectrum and update every cell tower in their networks with new software. But the industry is still smarting from the failure of other once promising wireless technologies: In Europe, "3G" (third generation) technologies were supposed to transform the economy, turning cell phones into mini-entertainment centers, but reality failed to live up to the hype.
Despite the expense and concerns about market demand for EvDO, it is already gaining a toehold in other countries and even in some small U.S. cities. It has been widely rolled out in South Korea, and Monet Mobile Networks Inc., a company based in Kirkland, Wash., launched EvDO networks last October in seven midwestern markets, including Sioux City, Iowa, and Grand Forks, N.D.
In addition to being far faster than WiFi, EvDO can work over existing cell phone networks and deliver a connection anywhere there is a mobile phone signal. In contrast, WiFi users must be within 300 feet or so of a base station or "hot spot."
Verizon Wireless executives say they were impressed by EvDO in market tests using Lucent's technology in the Washington area. Nortel Networks Ltd. equipment is also being tested in San Diego.