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Skip The Coffee Shop—There's Another Wireless Broadband Option

Cingular, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless offer third-generation cellular data networks with speeds similar to DSL, and plan to keep improving them. But coverage isn't everywhere, and they'll require you to lock into a plan of at least $60 a month.
It's a sad state of affairs when your wireless Internet access rests on proximity to a coffee shop or bakery.

But Wi-Fi isn't the only answer. Cell-phone companies are working to make fast Net access available from anywhere within their coverage areas using laptop-connection cards that support third-generation cellular networks. Cingular last week revealed an upgrade to its 3G network to one based on High Speed Downlink Packet Access, a new mobile-telephony protocol that's supposed to give customers download speeds of 400 to 700 Kbps, double what it now offers and similar to DSL. Customers must buy a $100 laptop modem card and an unlimted $80 data plan.

Cingular will offer handsets that work on the network early next year. And for those who can chat and surf at once, "it's the first network in the U.S. to offer simultaneous voice and data," chief operating officer Ralph de la Vega says.

Sprint next year plans to upgrade its Power Vision network based on a wireless radio broadband data protocol, Evolution-Data Optimized, to the new, faster version of EV-DO, and expand service from 191 U.S. markets to more than 260. The upgrade will boost Sprint's service by about 100 Kbps from the current 400 to 700 Kbps.

Sprint offers mobile businesspeople two options. They can either sign up for a $60 monthly unlimited usage plan and get a free connection card for their laptop, or purchase a mobile device like the Pocket PC running Windows Mobile 5.0, which gives them access to Microsoft applications, business tools like customer-relationship management, and the ability to view large attachments like PowerPoint presentations. Consumers get entertainment services like live TV and an online music store, where they can download full-length songs in 30 seconds on their cell phones, says Barry Tishgart, senior director of business marketing at Sprint.

With the upgrade to EV-DO Release A, Sprint will be able to offer voice-over-IP services like push-to-talk. "The building blocks are in place now and it's just completing the later phases that will make mobile broadband even more compelling," says Tishgart. The third big carrier, Verizon Wireless, also offers a 3G network similar to DSL speeds.

Cellular broadband coverage isn't available everywhere. Users won't be dropped during a session when they're outside 3G coverage areas, but they will be redirected back to their regular, slower cellular networks.