Gearing up for the industry slugfest expected to break out next week, when cell-phone users can begin switching wireless carriers without giving up their phone numbers, AT&T Wireless boasted Tuesday that it now offers the fastest national data service.
That claim is essentially true, though only by a small margin. Either way, compared with the data service AT&T Wireless is replacing, the $300 million upgrade to "EDGE" technology brings a major improvement to the company's lineup at a crucial time.
Cell companies have been hurrying out new products and promotions in a bid to attract new customers and retain old ones once new rules take effect Monday freeing them to switch services without losing their phone numbers. Sprint, for example, rolled out a new "walkie-talkie" feature and aggressive pricing. T-Mobile has expanded its free weekend calls to include all of Friday.
The new $79.99 per month unlimited service is billed with average data speeds of between 100 and 130 kilobits per second for a laptop equipped with a wireless modem card that costs $250. Under optimal conditions, such as off-peak usage times and close proximity to a network transmitter, the maximum speed is 200 kbps.
By contrast, the "1xRTT" technology used by archrivals Sprint and Verizon Wireless are billed as providing average speeds between 50 and 70 kbps, with bursts of up to 144 kbps.
The announcement by AT&T Wireless goes right to the heart of a Sprint ad campaign that directly attacks AT&T Wireless as offering inferior data speeds of only 20 to 40 kbps with the "GPRS" technology it has been using.
"We are now twice as fast as (Sprint and Verizon), and we offer the service at the same price they offer for their services," said Andre Dahan, president of AT&T Wireless Mobile Multimedia Services, adding that his company won't be shy in its marketing efforts. "Most big publications (Wednesday) will have ads, and yes, we are naming names."
None of these cellular-based data services compare with the speed of a wireless data connection using the popular Wi-Fi technology. But they provide coverage over a much wider area than Wi-Fi, whose current range is limited to about 300 feet.
Of course, the race for wireless data supremacy is hardly over.
In September, Verizon launched an even faster generation of wireless Internet access in two cities, Washington and San Diego, promising average speeds of between 300 and 500 kbps, almost on par with the wired broadband connections provided by DSL and cable TV, and bursts of up to 2,000 kbps.
However, Verizon has no immediate plans to roll out that service nationally.
Next year, AT&T Wireless plans to test a technology called UMTS in four cities with speeds between 300 and 400 kbps. Cingular Wireless recently introduced an EDGE-based service in Indianapolis, but the timing of a broader rollout is uncertain.
Besides improving laptop connections, cellular companies hope the costly upgrades will eventually boost sales of a new generation of multimedia-capable phones so Web surfing on a handset is finally practical.
For now, AT&T Wireless sells only one EDGE-compatible handset, the Nokia 6200, which can take advantage of the enhanced speed. At least two more EDGE handsets are slated for the coming months.
The first phase of next-generation cellular technologies, rolled out to customers last year, disappointed many users in terms of speed, offering downloads that rarely surpassed a telephone dial-up connection, which has a maximum capacity of 56 kbps.
As a result, many cell-phone companies have embraced Wi-Fi to deliver faster wireless connections in at least some locations, such as cafes and airport terminals, that high-paying business customers frequent.