2.5G Networks Expand at Low Speed

Growth is hung up as wireless data clients and service providers wait for each other to make the next move, eWEEK Labs finds.

High-speed wireless data services, and the clients outfitted to consume them, are subject to a sort of networklike interdependence. The value and success of each depends on the success of the other.

Complicating matters further is that we have multiple vendors building different types of clients to operate on different types of networks built out by multiple carriers, as is the case with services based on GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) 2000 technology.

The resulting chicken-and-egg scenario has retarded the spread of so-called 2.5G networks (which fall short of speeds promised from third-generation networks) and that of their clients, with companies on either side of the equation waiting for the other to make its move.

An early exception is Handspring Inc., which last year shifted its focus from handheld organizers to wireless communicators with the launch of the Treo 180. The Treo 180 shipped without support for GPRS, but Handspring promised to add that support later, through a software upgrade.

It took longer than we expected, but Handspring made available its GPRS upgrade for Treo users on T-Mobile USA Inc.s wireless network at the beginning of last month, enabling the GPRS-based Treo 180 and 270 units to join the CDMA 2000-based Treo 300 (which Handspring unveiled in August) in the land of speedy wireless data access.

Well, speedier wireless data access, at least. Hovering around the speed of a 56K-bps modem, the 2.5G links pale in comparison with broadband, but they do a good job of handling e-mail and light Web browsing. In our experience with these Treo models, the biggest stumbling blocks to comfortable Web browsing were their small displays.

This is a standard problem with handheld devices, but a higher-resolution display, such as the one that accompanies Palm Inc.s new Tungsten T, would be a helpful addition.

The Blazer browser that ships with Handsprings Treo devices does a decent job of squashing full-size Web pages in the Treos 160-by-160-pixel display. We appreciated having the option of receiving images in black and white to speed download times and, of course, the choice to further speed things by not receiving images at all.

In addition, Blazer makes good use of the Treos scroll button—we could jump from link to link down a page with the scroller, depressing it to move ahead.

One of the things we liked best about the way the Treos handled their data connections was that they maintained their link even after we shut off the devices (or, actually, suspended them, since handheld devices generally dont switch completely off). The Treos we tested also allowed us to interrupt a browsing session to take a voice call, then return quickly to our browsing.

When we reviewed the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone Edition, we had to re-connect each time we suspended the device, presumably to conserve the units batteries. The difference is only a fraction of a minute, but fractions of a minute add up quickly on a device intended for use in a series of many short sessions.

The Research In Motion Ltd. BlackBerry 5810 we reviewed last year didnt ship with a Web browser, so this wasnt much of an issue. However, weve yet to test RIMs latest, Web-browser-bearing BlackBerry devices, which look promising.

The Treo 300, which features a nice color display, sells for $499, or $449 with a rebate. Sprint provides service for the 300 on its CDMA 2000 network and charges $10 per month on top of a standard phone plan for unlimited data access—a huge plus when compared with pay-by-the-kilobyte plans that require users to meter their usage in an unfamiliar manner.

This is, by the way, how T-Mobile, the GPRS provider for the color Treo 270 and the monochrome Treo 180, structures its own rate plans. Atop standard phone service, GPRS access from T-Mobile costs $10 per month for 2MB, $20 for 10MB and $35 for 20MB.

The Treo 270 costs $499. The 180 has come down to $99 after a rebate from Handspring, making it a rather inexpensive wireless data client.

Once we see this sort of relatively low-cost, high-speed wireless client teamed with an affordable pricing plan, well have a solution to the second chicken-and-egg puzzle facing this market: Having laid out significant investments to build out their 2.5G wireless networks, carriers will be understandably anxious to begin recouping investments.

However, to build a paying customer base, carriers will have to place these services in the hands of more people than theyve yet managed to reach and must enable these users to discover their own killer applications for wireless data services.

Usable and affordable devices such as the Treo 180—along with simpler, lower-cost, unlimited use data plans—might well bring up the tide that raises all ships.

Technical Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at jason_brooks@ziffdavis.com.