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Sprint Joins Cellular High-Speed Data Race

Wireless high-speed data services are here. The question is, who wants them?

The major U.S. cellular carriers are moving aggressively to deploy wireless high-speed data services, providing an alternative to Wi-Fi hot-spot services and close-to-broadband speeds for businesspeople who need fast access to business applications.

Sprint last week became the latest carrier to launch a high-speed data service based on Evolution-Data Optimized, or EV-DO, technology, which offers data-download rates that average 400 Kbps to 700 Kbps and peak rates as fast as 2.0 Mbps. EV-DO puts voice and data on separate channels, allowing for faster Internet connections. By adding EV-DO modules and software to existing base stations, carriers can increase the performance of their networks from their current 50 Kbps to 70 Kbps. That gives laptops with EV-DO-enabled cards faster access to E-mail and business applications such as customer-relationship-management systems.

Cellular carriers are upgrading their networks to support location-based services, E-commerce applications, and business-productivity tools that require high-speed data access. Last year, Sprint unveiled plans to offer an EV-DO service, promising broadbandlike wireless data speeds up to 10 times faster than its CDMA2000-based service.

Sprint delivered last week, launching the EV-DO service in airports and central business districts in 34 U.S. markets. The carrier plans to cover at least 200 urban and suburban markets in about 60 metropolitan areas by next year. The initial rollout targets mobile business users who are likely to need EV-DO to access the Net and bandwidth-intensive applications, and to retrieve large E-mail attachments, says Randy Ritter, Sprint VP of product development and management.

But Sprint isn't the first. Verizon Wireless went live with a similar service in Washington, D.C., and San Diego in 2003 and now offers the service in 50 metro areas. The carrier plans to expand coverage to half the U.S. population by the end of this year.

Cingular won't use EV-DO. Instead, it will launch its Universal Mobile Telephone Service later this year based on wideband Code Division Multiple Access technology, which is slower than narrowband EV-DO. "Choosing EV-DO would require Cingular to change their entire network strategy," Gartner analyst Michael King says.

Traveling businesspeople could turn to EV-DO as an alternative to Wi-Fi hot-spot services. Once carriers upgrade their cellular infrastructure, EV-DO will provide coverage just about anywhere there's a cellular signal, Yankee Group analyst Roberta Wiggins says.

The question remains whether there's demand for cellular-based, high-speed data services. Only 40% of U.S. businesses with more than 500 employees have mobile services, including voice. While 35% of those businesses are using or testing cellular data services, 36% don't plan to do so, according to a Yankee Group survey.

"Wireless service providers and Wi-Fi providers are going after this mythical enterprise high-speed data user that may or may not exist," King says. High-speed data services were designed to download video and music files. It's unclear what killer business application will require a 500-Kbps link for mobile devices.

Nevertheless, carriers are convinced that's where the revenue is, and they're rushing to deploy their own high-speed wireless data services before wireless technologies such as WiMax debut. So, King says, expect to see three nationwide high-speed wireless data networks in the next 18 to 24 months.

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