Cell-Phone Network Helps With Web Surfing

RALEIGH, N.C. – A few hundred consumers are testing a new service that allows users of Nextel’s cell phone network to wirelessly connect to the Internet at speeds rivaling traditional high-speed connections. The service can link users to the Web anywhere and download large files in seconds.

Nextel offers the network in a region roughly bordered by Fuquay-Varina and Durham but is battling, along with other mobile-phone companies, to find the right recipe of coverage and price to appeal to consumers’ desire for mobility.

The carriers are investigating a wide variety of technologies with their own benefits, drawbacks and acronyms. Nextel plans to test its service in the Triangle through the end of the year before deciding whether to install it elsewhere.

Analysts figure it’s only a matter of time before computer users, hooked on wireless computing hot spots at hotels, airports and cafes, will demand the same fast service everywhere.

“It is becoming a bit of an arms race,” said Seamus McAteer, senior analyst with the Zelos Group, a San Francisco market research firm.

Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless, which is merging with Cingular Wireless, and Alltel are all in the process of testing a high-speed computing network for commercial use.

But skeptics say carriers should proceed with caution because U.S. consumers have taken to the services more slowly than those in Japan, Korea and the United Kingdom.

At $50, $70 or more per month, skeptics say consumers will probably be uninterested, especially when they can connect to the Web for free in many public locations with alternative technology.

“I would characterize it as a gamble,” said Avi Greengart, wireless analyst with Jupiter Research in New York. “The consumer demand part of the equation is not clear.”

Mark Carney, Nextel’s data sales manager for the Triangle, said two decades ago “it was ludicrous to suggest that anybody would want to carry a phone with them.” Now almost 1 billion people worldwide have the devices.

“What we’re trying to make an assessment of is whether that same opportunity exists in the broadband world _ is there value to carrying … the Internet with them,” he said.

Source The News & Observer