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Verizon to Offer Faster Wireless Data Service

Laptop users in San Diego and Washington will be able to connect at speeds comparable to those of cable or DSL.

September 29, 2003|James S. Granelli | Times Staff Writer

As cell phone companies rush to catch the next wave of mobile technology, Verizon Wireless this week will launch a super-fast wireless data service that allows laptop users to connect to the Internet at speeds comparable to those offered by cable modems or digital subscriber lines.

But competitors are close behind, and they will be scrutinizing Verizon Wireless' performance in San Diego and Washington, where the service, called Broadband Access, will be introduced.

Verizon Wireless, the country's largest wireless company, is hedging its bets. Executives said they would monitor sales of Broadband Access for three to six months before deciding whether to push into other markets.

Even so, Verizon Wireless Southern California President Marni Walden says she expects strong demand and figures that being first to market will help propel expansion into the Los Angeles area, the logical next stop.

The new feature also will later become part of the bundle of options offered by New York-based Baby Bell Verizon Communications Inc., which operates the wireless unit as a joint venture with Vodafone Group of Britain.

Analysts praised the service but noted that other carriers could catch up quickly and wondered how fast Verizon Wireless could expand.

"In this high-technology game, I might have a leg up on you today, but you could have a leg up on me tomorrow," said Forrester Research Inc. analyst Lisa Pierce.

Los Angeles and California, in general, are important because the state is home to about 23% of Verizon Wireless' 34.5 million customers. The company generates about a third of Verizon Communications' revenue.

"Our goal is to move very quickly to expand the coverage," Walden said.

Should Verizon Wireless expand into Los Angeles, it would take an additional nine to 12 months and as much as $200 million to upgrade the more than 1,000 cell phone towers in the area to handle the higher speeds, the company acknowledged.

"Wireless data service is a work in progress," said Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst in Atlanta. "This is a leap in speed, but it's only available in two markets."

Verizon Wireless will charge $79.99 a month for unlimited use of Broadband Access, which Kagan called a "good price." Competition probably will lower the price, but the company also will develop two other pricing plans -- one that combines voice minutes with broadband use and another that charges by the megabytes used.

Broadband Access and similar products eventually could put a dent in the growing popularity of wireless fidelity, or WiFi, service, which provides high-speed wireless connections within 150 feet or so of high-traffic areas such as airport rest areas and coffee shops.

"WiFi can certainly be an asset," Walden said. "But Broadband Access will give you the benefits of both: You can stay put or travel with it."

Analyst Kagan says everything wireless is up for grabs, noting: "WiFi can coexist in the marketplace if it still can offer higher speeds."

Broadband Access also ups the ante between two competing technologies. Verizon Wireless and Sprint Corp. rely on upgrades of code division multiple access, or CDMA, technology developed by Qualcomm Inc. of San Diego. But other carriers in the U.S. and most of the world use GSM, or global system for mobile communications.

The latest CDMA technology products give Broadband Access speeds averaging at least twice those offered by current CDMA and GSM technology, plus bursts of speed that would make it faster than cable modem or DSL.

Cingular Wireless and AT&T Wireless Inc., the country's second- and third-largest cell phone companies, said they were on track to offer such speeds -- faster than dial-up but slower that cable or DSL -- by the end of the year or early next year.

"We see 100 kilobits as the sweet spot for Web browsing and the extension of the corporate system," said Cingular spokesman Tony Carter. Cingular is a joint venture of Bell companies SBC Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp.

While Verizon Wireless will be pushing to get beyond two markets, AT&T Wireless spokesman Ritch Blasi, said, "ours will be national, and the devices you can use can still get you data in 40 countries, though at dial-up speeds."

Walden said she expected demand to surface, especially from businesses, because wireless access is what customers are telling her they want.

"Work is now something you do," she said, "not a place you go."

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