Cingular Wireless Tuesday launched its highest-speed data network service in several major U.S. cities. And while it is price-competitive with cellular data offerings from other carriers, it may be a tough sell against less-expensive handheld e-mail access services and free Wi-Fi hot spots.
Based on HSDPA (high speed download packet access), the BroadbandConnect service provides average throughput rates of 400K bps to 700K bps, with bursts of up to a megabit per second, said officials at Cingular, in Atlanta. It is an upgrade to the companys existing EDGE network and will be backward-compatible, officials said. It also supports voice and data connections simultaneously.
“Make no mistake about it: Wireless users want the speed and services theyve come to expect from their wired connections,” said Cingular President and CEO Stan Sigman in a statement to an audience of investors at a New York conference.
Cingular is initially launching the BroadbandConnect service in Austin, Texas; Baltimore; Boston; Chicago; Dallas; Houston; Las Vegas; Phoenix; Portland, Ore.; Salt Lake City; San Diego; San Francisco; San Jose, Calif; Seattle; Tacoma, Wash.; and Washington, D.C. The service should be available to “most major markets” by the end of 2006, said Cingular spokesman Ritch Blasi.
Initially, BroadbandConnect is available only for laptop computers, via a modem card and Cingulars Communication Manager software. The cards, offered by both Novatel Wireless Inc. and Sierra Wireless, are backward-compatible with EDGE and most bands of GPRS, so customers can still use them in cities where the HSDPA service is not yet available.
Pricing for the modem is $299 with no service commitment, $249 with a one-year service commitment, and $199 with a two-year commitment, or $99 with a $100 rebate. Initial service pricing ranges from $19.99 per month for 5MB of data to $59.99 per month for an unlimited data plan with a two-year commitment, for customers who have existing voice plans.
Both Sprint-Nextel and Verizon Wireless charge $59.99 for unlimited laptop usage of their EV-DO high-speed network for customers who also have voice plans, and $79.99 for customers without them.
Cellular data service pricing has decreased significantly in recent years; the same companies were charging $100 per month for unlimited service charges on their initial third-generation networks three years ago.
And the networks are now competing against less-expensive options such as Wi-Fi hot spots and other readily available network connections such as Ethernet access in hotel rooms.
“I dont know of many companies wanting to add another $60-per-month recurring charge to all their users,” said Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner Inc., a consultancy in San Jose. “With the wireless e-mail devices, many users believe that they dont need a wireless card for their laptop. They use the handheld to get e-mail while traveling, and they use broadband at the hotel—which is much faster than HSDPA—for everything else.”
But there are customers who are sold on high-speed cellular services based on the familiarity of the network provider.
“I try to leave my laptop at home whenever I can because its a hassle at the airport and just generally a pain to lug around,” said Christopher Bell, president and chief technology officer of Shopping Syndicate LLC in Los Angeles, which operates the shopping site dealhack.com. Still, he pays for Verizon Wireless EV-DO service on his laptop.
“I prefer to use a network with whose security standing I have experience,” Bell said. “When Im traveling, I use it in hotels versus their broadband, in part to save money and in part because its hassle-free and has a known security status. I dont have to worry about honeypots, etc.”
Handsets that support the BroadBandConnect network are due in 2006. Sources close to Cingular said the first such phones likely will come from Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Electronics.
Editors Note: This story was updated to include pricing information and comments from users and analysts.