Connect fast with 3G Nets

Imagine being able to get on the Internet with a notebook or PDA anywhere you can use your cell phone-at landline speeds or faster. That’s the siren song of next-generation wireless networks. After many years of hype, these so-called 3G (for third-generation) networks-which succeed the old analog and today’s digital cellular networks-are finally rolling out.

We tried two 3G services – from Verizon Wireless Inc. and AT&T Wireless Services Inc. – and found that they do indeed deliver significantly higher speeds than their predecessors, which hit top speeds of 14.4 kilobits per second. There is some bad news: 3G isn’t available everywhere, and it isn’t cheap.

Verizon Wireless Express Network service is based on the CDMA2000 1X upgrade (also known as 1XRTT) to the CDMA standard used nationwide by Verizon and Sprint Corp. The peak data speed is 144 kbps, but carriers say average speeds are 40 to 70 kbps, depending on your location, the device, and the amount of network traffic. Express Network launched in the Northeast Corridor (Boston-New York-Washington), the San Francisco Bay Area, and Salt Lake City; by year’s end, Verizon expects to offer the service over 75 per cent of its network.

Using Express Network with Sierra Wireless Inc.’s CDMA2000 1X PC Card, the US$300 AirCard 555, we recorded speeds averaging 60 kbps in downtown San Francisco and 70 kbps in Boston using a laptop PC. Average speeds with an HP Jornada 565 Pocket PC slowed to 29 kbps, however, because of the different OS.

Express Network is available for a $30 surcharge on Verizon Wireless calling plans that cost at least $35 a month. You can then use the minutes on your plan for voice or data-but if you use the AirCard 555, you can’t also use a cell phone on the same account. Instead, you must make voice calls using a microphone and an earpiece or the speakers on your laptop or Pocket PC.

Phone as modem

Alternatively, you could get a Kyocera 2235 1XRTT cell phone, which you can use as a modem for data service with Socket Communications’ $99 Digital Phone Card kit.

Sprint expects to roll out its CDMA2000 1X service nationwide sometime around midyear. But CDMA2000 1X isn’t the only 3G protocol. AT&T Wireless’s Mobile Internet is based on GPRS, an upgrade of the GSM protocol used in Europe. Its theoretical maximum speed is about 115 kbps. In our tests in Seattle using a $299 Novatel Wireless Merlin G100 PC Card in a notebook PC, speeds ran about 38 kbps, which AT&T Wireless expects for that card. Other big GPRS carriers include Cingular and VoiceStream.

These services are only the beginning. Both GPRS and CDMA2000 1X have upgrade paths that will increase data speeds to several megabits per second over the next few years. You may have other options too, including a growing number of public 802.11b access points.

Even so, digital cellular networks promise the greatest coverage, not to mention both voice and data services. For business travelers in areas with service, 3G will be worth the price premium.