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A New Wireless Web Link


Technicians test a technology known as EvDO that provides wireless data connections 10 times as fast as a regular modem. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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Bill Stone, Verizon Wireless executive director of network planning, said EvDO may prove to be a breakthrough for the entire wireless industry. He likens EvDO's potential to energize the mobile communications business to the introduction of the cell phone in the 1980s and its subsequent surge in popularity in the 1990s, when mobile phones moved from analog to digital technology.

"This could jump-start the industry all over again," Stone said.

A takeoff of EvDO would not only provide Verizon with a new high-speed Internet service to market, but it would probably help struggling equipment suppliers such as Lucent and Nortel, which have already developed the software and hardware to get the network up and running. Nokia Corp., Motorola Inc. and other cell phone makers would benefit from the introduction of new products capable of high-speed Internet access.

A U.S. launch of EvDO would also be a boon to San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc., which controls many of the patents underlying the technology. The growing interest in EvDO adds to the momentum of Qualcomm's CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) standard that is now used by some of the largest wireless companies, including Verizon and Sprint Corp. Other companies are likely to migrate to CMDA in part because it uses spectrum more efficiently than rival wireless standards and opens the door to high-speed data technologies such as EvDO, according to Coleman Bazelon, a vice president at AnalysisGroup/Economics, a Boston-based research firm.

One of the biggest barriers to EvDO is that it requires wireless companies to set aside a slice of their valuable airwaves just to transmit data. Because mobile phone companies barely have enough room to handle their voice traffic, EvDO is likely to remain on the back burner until the firms can acquire more spectrum.

Some wireless industry analysts say that, notwithstanding the excitement about the technology, the scarcity of airwaves and ongoing tumult in the telecommunications industry makes the rollout of EvDO far from a sure thing. Jane Zweig, chief executive of Shosteck Group, a wireless industry consulting company, said there is no assurance that EvDO technology will ever be widely deployed in the United States. "To assume they will do all this" with EvDO "is a leap of faith," Zweig said.

Denny Strigl , chief executive of Verizon Wireless Inc., has cautioned that the company will go slow on the new technology. Still, company spokesman Andrea Linskey said EvDO is a natural extension of its current data offering, which provides access to the Internet at speeds comparable to a dial-up modem. Verizon agreed last month to buy a large slice of airwaves in 50 markets for $750 million, in part to make room for future services such as EvDO, Linskey said.

While EvDO would require huge investments by cash-strapped telecommunications companies, WiFi's popularity stems largely from the fact that it is an inexpensive and relatively simple technology to get into operation. For about $200, anyone can buy a WiFi network's basic components and, with some computer savvy and a lot of luck, have it running in less than an hour.

A consortium of telecommunications and technology companies that includes Intel Corp., International Business Machines Corp. and AT&T Corp. is backing a WiFi company named Cometa Networks Inc., which plans to string together more than 20,000 WiFi "hot spots" into a nationwide wireless network.

Even with thousands of hot spots around the country, Cometa executives acknowledge that the company will not be able to offer blanket coverage. Instead, the goal is to provide a hot spot within a five-minute walk of any office in an urban area or five-minute drive in a suburban area, according to Steve Harris, vice president for corporate affairs at Cometa Networks. Boingo Wireless Inc., another firm putting together a national WiFi network, plans to have 5,000 hot spots running by the end of the year.

Critics and rivals say that creating a national network from tens of thousands of hot spots is more difficult and expensive than Cometa and others expect. And to create a truly national network that would have the reach of a cell-phone system would require more than 100,000 hot spots.

"To put together a national WiFi network is going to be extremely complicated and take a long time," said George M. Tronsrue III, chief executive of Monet.

Unlike Verizon Wireless, which probably would launch EvDO over its existing wireless network, Monet built a stand-alone wireless system in the seven markets where it operates. Monet's system bypasses the local phone network, commonly known as the local loop, offering high-speed connections in some places where wired high-speed service is unavailable. Competition in the high-speed Internet business has been stymied largely by the huge expense of building a wired connection to every house and building in a market.

"This technology allows you to have a broadband connection that unlocks the local loop," said Tronsrue, Monet's chief executive.

Monet launched in October and so far has about 1,000 customers, according to the company. Most of its subscribers are business customers that use the high-speed connection to download inventory lists and spreadsheets that would bog down when moving on a slower connection, although, like a cable broadband network, EvDO's access speeds do slow as more people sign on. That fits in with Lucent's prediction that EvDO will be popular with business travelers who often are now limited to the dial-up Internet service in hotel rooms or the pokey wireless networks currently offered by Verizon and Sprint.

Like Cometa, Tronsrue has big-name investors, including billionaire George Soros and Intel, and he is excited about the EvDO technology. But he has also learned that there are no sure things in technology. "Right now our main target is that at the end of 2003, we are still operating."

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