Cell phones have long allowed you to get on the Internet, but only in the most minimal, Morse-code sort of way: The connections were just too pokey to get anything done. Over the past two years, however, several wireless carriers have launched upgraded data services that approach or exceed the speed of a 56-kbps dial-up modem.
That might not seem like much to brag about, but it is real progress in the wireless business. We tried the new data offerings of AT&T Wireless, Sprint PCS, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless. In each case, we used either a regular cell phone and a connection cable or a PC Card modem to get a laptop online.
(Nextel and Cingular offer the older form of cellular data, which tops out at roughly 19 kilobits per second. To confuse matters further, Sprint, T-Mobile and others also sell much faster WiFi Internet access, but this technology has no relation to cell phones.)
Verizon Wireless's Express Network provided the fastest but most awkward connection of the six. Its PC Card modem required installing five different programs. But one of those applications, a Web-acceleration utility, offered a reward for that effort, getting our test page (The Post's washingtonpost.com home page) to display in six seconds, comparable to cable-modem or digital-subscriber-line speed.
Actual connection speeds fluctuated wildly but averaged around 60 kbps, below the theoretical peak of 144 kbps.
Sprint PCS's Vision service uses the same basic 1xRTT (1x radio transmission technology) as Verizon's Express Network, but performed both more consistently and slightly slower than Verizon. The Post's page downloaded in eight seconds, and the average speed was a steady 55 kbps.
AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile employ a different technology called GPRS (general packet radio service). AT&T's implementation performed almost as fast as its 1xRTT-based competitors. Its PC Card modem downloaded the test page in nine seconds and averaged a consistent 57 kbps.
T-Mobile not only uses the same wireless technology, it also sells the same model of PC Card modem. But its service worked much worse: The Post's page took a leisurely 20 seconds to load, and our connection speeds averaged only 25 kbps.
All of these faster services suffer two quirks. One is use while moving -- it's possible to get online from a bus or train, but connection speeds tend to drop (especially with GPRS) as land speeds pick up.
The other is cost. These services are still being marketed to businesses with generous expense accounts; unlimited data service can easily add $70 or more to your monthly phone bill. So if you've managed to survive this long without wireless Web access on your laptop, you'll do well to live without for a little longer.
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