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EarthLink Expands Wireless Options Offered At Retail

ISP EarthLink has unveiled plans to offer a broad selection of wireless e-mail devices, not just the mass-market-oriented Motorola T900 device, through brick & mortar retail channels.

The devices share a user’s EarthLink e-mail address or other POP3 e-mail address.

The company’s device selection currently includes the BlackBerry Internet editions of the RIM 950 and 957, which operate on the Cingular data network; the RIM 850 and 857, operating on the Motient data network; the Motorola T900, operating on the SkyTel network; and Ricochet-service radiomodems that connect to PC- or Mac-based laptops.

By the end of June, the company plans to launch a Ricochet-network PC Card as well as the Microsoft Exchange versions of Blackberry’s RIM devices, which will share a user’s Microsoft Exchange-based corporate e-mail address, said executive VP Lance Weatherby. In the second half, the company plans to offer a wireless option for Palm devices.

The company also hopes to extend its wireless e-mail service to wireless phones.

The wireless effort is part of EarthLink’s Everywhere program, intended to extend EarthLink access beyond the PC to multiple types of devices, including Web appliances such as Sony’s e Villa Network Entertainment Center, available in late June.

Although EarthLink’s wireless devices aren’t available everywhere yet, select devices have been rolled out to New York City’s RCS Computer. They’re also due in San Jose, Calif.-based Fry’s chain “in short order,” and OfficeMax, Shaker Heights, Ohio, has agreed to sell select devices in EarthLink kiosks that will be deployed in about 700 stores beginning in the summer. OfficeMax will also be among the first retailers to offer EarthLink’s landline DSL service, Weatherby said. EarthLink has offered its dial-up landline service for years at retail, he noted.

“We’re in negotiations with a lot more retailers [for wireless devices],” he added.

By rolling out more than one product to retailers, EarthLink can leverage its marketing efforts, Weatherby said.

EarthLink’s strategy is to be “pipe-agnostic” in wired and wireless, he said. The company, for example, is in trials with Time-Warner to offer its service through cable modems so that, “if you can’t get DSL service [in your neighborhood], you can get something else,” he said. EarthLink also offers broadband access via satellite, he noted.

In September, EarthLink plans to offer two-way Web access through its RIM devices and include Web access in its first Palm offering in the second half. Web-access pricing hasn’t been set.

EarthLink’s plans also include instant messaging service, but probably not until next year, Weatherby said. For PCs, the company currently offers EarthLink-rebranded America Online IM service, but AOL “controls the proxy server and therefore the services we can provide,” he explained. “We would need AOL to develop instant messaging service for the T900 and the other devices, and we don’t know yet if we can get AOL’s okay.”

As for its Palm plans, EarthLink hasn’t decided whether it will offer wireless Palm access through the CDPD, circuit-switched CDMA, or packet-based CDMA 1X networks, Weatherby said. The configuration of the Palm device also hasn’t been finalized, but one option is a clip-on sled that would accept multiple PC-Card radiomodems, each operating on a different network to give users the flexibility to change networks or upgrade service from circuit-switched CDMA to CDMA 1X, for example.

To simplify sales for retailers, consumers can self-activate a device by sending an e-mail from the device to EarthLink, then calling to specify the e-mail address to be assigned to the device. The device is then activated immediately, Weatherby said.

Service costs $24.95/month for unlimited messaging on the T900 and $39.95/month for unlimited messaging on the RIM devices, which receive more text per transmission than the T900 because of they packet-data networks on which they operate. As a result, T900 users are more likely to receive only the initial portions of long messages, requiring them to use the device’s menu more often to ask the network for the rest of the message.

The packet-data networks also deliver messages in about half the time of T900’s SkyTel network (40 seconds vs. 20-30 seconds), he said. The SkyTel network however covers about 5 percent more of the U.S. population than the packet networks, he noted.

On its Web site, EarthLink prices the T900 at $125. The palm-size RIM 857 and 957, operating on the respective Motient and Cingular networks, are priced at $499. EarthLink’s price for the pager-size RIM 850 and 950 devices (Motient and Cingular, respectively) has been $399, but the company planned a one-month promotion starting June 11 at $199 to test consumer response.