Wireless Data: Call Back Later

A new era is dawning for wireless data in the U.S. Wireless-phone carriers are wrapping up massive upgrades designed to add reasonably fast, always-on data service to their voice networks. But as is the case with most high-tech revolutions, you don't want to be on the leading edge of this one. The software is flaky. Using the service with a laptop or handheld computer is physically awkward. To top it off, the cost can be a nasty surprise if you aren't careful.

I have been testing the first broadly available network, VoiceStream Wireless' iStream, a general packet radio service (GPRS). Cingular Wireless and AT&T Wireless (AWE) are testing their own GPRS networks, and the service also is available in Europe and parts of Asia. Sprint PCS (PCS) and Verizon Wireless will roll out a different, but similar, technology on their U.S. networks by midyear. These so-called 2.5G services offer speeds roughly equivalent to a dial-up line; 3G, or third-generation, wireless broadband is at least a couple of years away.

There's very little point in using iStream with just a phone, such as the Motorola Timeport P280 lent me by VoiceStream. The service starts up quickly, since you don't need to place a call to connect with the Internet. But it cannot solve the problem of minuscule displays and terrible data entry on the handsets, and the tiny amount of data typically sent to phone browsers makes network speed irrelevant.

To take advantage of the speed, you have to use an iStream phone with a Pocket PC handheld or Windows laptop. Pocket PCs with integrated GPRS service should be available soon, and Handspring's (HAND) Palm-based Treo Communicator, a voice-data hybrid, will run GPRS with a software upgrade later this year. Laptops will be able to connect using special PC card modems. But for now, the only way to use the service is to connect through the handset, using either a serial cable or, as I did, with an infrared link.

In effect, iStream gives you the equivalent of a dial-up connection--about three times as fast as existing wireless-phone networks and probably 10 times faster than the network used by the new Palm i705. With either a laptop or a handheld, handling e-mail or browsing the Web is very much like using dial-up, but you are liberated from the need for a phone line.

Unfortunately, the arrangement is very awkward, especially with the Pocket PC. Infrared requires a clear line of sight between the two devices, which means they cannot be held in your hand. (I did not have a cable for the Pocket PC, which would have made it a bit easier.) Another difficulty is the link software. It's hard to know whether the problem lies with Voice-Stream (VSTR), Motorola (MOT), or Microsoft (MSFT), but the iStream software used to establish a connection often failed to work. Pocket PC users would do well to wait for integrated devices.

The pricing of iStream could lead to some nasty surprises. Once connected, you can stay online for as long as your batteries last, so you are billed by the byte rather than by the minute. VoiceStream offers three service plans: $2.99 per month (in addition to voice charges) plus $10 per megabyte after the first megabyte (for use with a handset only); $19.99 plus $5 per megabyte after 5 MB (for a Pocket PC); and $39.99 plus $4 per megabyte after 10 MB (for a laptop or Pocket PC).

The problem is that laptop software, especially Microsoft's, makes no distinction about the type of network you are connected to and will cheerfully attempt to download large files over your wireless connection. So, that big Windows update file that was downloaded in the background or the 10 MB PowerPoint presentation e-mailed by a colleague could cost you $40. The service will get cheaper, but for now, it pays to be careful.

Making these new wireless networks truly useful requires much better integration with computers. And we need a new generation of wireless-aware software that minimizes the demand on expensive networks. Wide-area wireless networks that offer useful speed have great promise for mobile workers. But for the time being, you'll want to approach them with caution. n By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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