By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
New York — Cellular service continued to evolve in the waning days of 2006, with Sprint Nextel launching commercial CDMA 1x EV-DO Revision A in one market and Verizon preparing for its Rev. A launch.
Also, in a commercial test in Seattle, GSM carrier T-Mobile became the first carrier to offer handsets that hand off calls between cellular and Wi-Fi networks. The carrier offers the handsets and service only to Seattle-area consumers and has declined to outline the rollout plans for the service, called HotSpot@Home.
The T-Mobile service lets consumers make voice calls and access cellular data services over home and office networks and in more than 7,000 T-Mobile-operated wireless hot spots in Starbucks, Hyatt hotels, airports and other public locations. For the home or office, users must install a special 802.11b/g wireless router available from T-Mobile free after $49 rebate.
The carrier positions its service as a landline replacement for the home because it improves in-building and in-home penetration of cellular service without building costly cell sites, and it reduces battery drain when used in a Wi-Fi network.
The service can also be used by the carrier to offload cellular calls from the cellular network during peak periods to reduce network congestion, and it enables consumers to take advantage of higher Wi-Fi data rates to access their cellular data services.
T-Mobile is using Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) technology to let cellphones send and receive voice calls and access data via Wi-Fi.
T-Mobile's VoIP service can be accessed through a pair of hybrid Wi-Fi/cellular phones from Samsung and Nokia. The two phones — Nokia's 6136 and Samsung's SGH-t709, are available at $49.99 each with two-year contract, or $99.99 with one-year contract, if the subscriber gets a rate plan of at least $39.99 per month. The Wi-Fi service costs subscribers an additional $19.99 per month on top of the cellular rate plan.
The Samsung t709 is a triband GSM/EDGE slider with music player, 1-megapixel camera, instant messaging clients and speaker-independent speech recognition. The GSM/EDGE quad-band Nokia 6136 clamshell features 802.11b/g, FM stereo, music player and a 1.3-megapixel camera.
VoIP and landline replacement are part of T-Mobile's long-term plans for the nationwide 2.1GHz spectrum that it recently won during FCC spectrum auctions ending in September, according to owner Deutsch Telecom during a post-auction press conference. In a presentation, Deutsch Telecom said T-Mobile's 3G services will "harness IP convergence to unleash new services" and drive "displacement of fixed landline" service.
In the auction, T-Mobile spent $4.2 billion to more than double the amount of spectrum its owns on average in the top 100 markets to 52MHz. The additional spectrum will enable the carrier to add high-data-capacity W-CDMA HSDPA technology to its network. The third-generation technology would enable T-Mobile to compete more effectively with high-speed data services currently offered by Cingular, Sprint and Verizon, all of which also landed 2.1GHz spectrum in the auctions, as did Sprint Nextel's joint venture with several cable companies.
T-Mobile, which bought the most spectrum during the auctions, will start building out its 2.1GHz network this year and complete the rollout in 2007-2008, Deutsch Telecom said.
As part of its high-speed strategy, Sprint commercially launched CDMA 1x EV-DO Rev. A service in San Diego and announced plans to follow up with 20 more markets by year's end, extending service to places where more than 40 million people live. By the third quarter of 2007, Sprint expects its Power Vision network to be upgraded completely to EV-DO Rev. A, whose coverage will initially be concentrated in airports and business districts where wireless data demand is highest. Rev. A will then expand to include Sprint's entire footprint.
Rev. A accelerates average upload speeds to 300-400 kbps from EV-DO's 50-70 kbps. Average download speeds will increase slightly to 450-800 kbps from 400-700 kbps.
For now, the carrier's only Rev. A devices are wireless modems, including the newest model, the Novatel Wireless Ovation U720. It's due in early November and will be the carrier's first wireless USB modem, which plugs into the USB port of a laptop. It will be available for as low as $49.99 with a two-year subscriber agreement and mail-in-rebate.
When Sprint makes Rev. A handsets available in early 2007, consumers could potentially take advantage of all-IP video telephony, higher performance push-to-talk (PTT) services, multiuser video conferencing, real-time gaming and simultaneous streaming of video content and live Web cams. Sprint also foresees music-on-demand services.
The other Sprint markets scheduled to launch Rev. A this year are Baltimore; Boston; Buffalo, N.Y.; Denver; Detroit; Hartford, Conn.; Kansas City; Milwaukee, Newark/Trenton, N.J.; New York City, Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Providence, R.I.; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Sacramento; Salt Lake City; San Francisco; Seattle and Washington.
Overall, Sprint plans to reach more than 200 million people in the U.S. with mobile broadband data services (including both EV-DO Revisions 0 and A) in 220 major metropolitan areas across the country with its Power Vision network by the end of 2006.
Rev. A service plans for all cards currently range from $39.99 per month for 40MB to $79.99 per month for unlimited data usage. Customers signing a two-year Sprint subscriber agreement may also be eligible to receive unlimited data usage for $59.99 per month (no separate voice plan required).
For its part, fellow CDMA 1x carrier Verizon recently reached an agreement with key infrastructure supplier Motorola to upgrade Motorola-made EV-DO cell sites to Rev. A, but Verizon hasn't disclosed a timetable for launching commercial service. "We've been doing all the work, upgrading networks, testing devices, trialing all the elements" a spokesman said. "When it's baked, we'll serve up Rev. A — just like the other guys."
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