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Advancements to make wireless Web bearable

(ORLANDO, Florida) - As more people in the United States buy Internet-enabled cell phones and wireless handhelds, they find themselves bumping against the devices' limitations.

They can send and receive e-mail, but not attached files. Streaming audio and video are not yet possible. And wireless Web-surfing is mostly wasted time.

But at the nation's premier wireless industry show, which opened Monday in Orlando, the promise was for data transmission speeds by year's end fast enough to finally make wireless gadgets attractive.

"These things are real now," said Charlie Golvin, an analyst for Forrester Research. "We're no longer talking about what it's going to be or who's going to have it. We have networks that are live today, and 2002 is the year that the networks become ubiquitous."

Although many wireless carriers at the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association Wireless 2002 show bragged of introducing third-generation -- or "3G" -- technology, the reality doesn't quite match the hype.

True third-generation networks can transmit data as fast as 2 megabits per second. The networks promoted in Orlando promise up to 144 kbps -- though speeds comparable regular dial-up modem rates are the norm.

That's still three times faster than most current networks -- and good enough to support e-mail, text-messaging and the wireless Web.

Sprint PCS, for one, promises high-speed data service across the nation this summer, which the company says is costing it $1.5 billion to roll out.

"And if we did not get one data user, we would've still made that investment and the reason is, it also doubles our voice capacity," Sprint PCS president Chuck Levin said.

Sprint PCS was among carriers announcing products featuring Microsoft technology -- a sign the software giant now sees the U.S. wireless market as ripe.

Both Sprint PCS and Verizon said they would market a combination phone/handheld computer called Thera -- Greek for "opening" or "gateway" -- designed to replace the laptop for business travelers.

Made by Audiovox, the Thera will run on the Windows' Pocket PC operating system, supporting e-mail, instant messaging, Web browsing and multimedia as well as Word and Excel documents.

Verizon spokeswoman Brenda Raney said the device will cost about $800 and be available by or early summer.

Cingular said it would be coming out with a Windows-powered Smartphone, called Sendo Z100, later this year, while VoiceStream also announced a Pocket PC-based phone that Microsoft said should be available this summer.

Pricing plans have not yet been announced.

Microsoft's wireless smartphones will be competing against devices already on the market that run the Palm operating system -- and made by rivals such as Handspring and Samsung.

However, there are roadblocks companies must surmount if they are successfully to sell 3G to customers.

First, cellular phone coverage across America can be spotty even today. About a 10-minute drive from the show's venue, the Orange County Convention Center, at least one cellular carrier has a coverage gap near Walt Disney World.

Also, some 3G providers must their customers on a new pricing system. Instead of consumers being billed by the minute alone, the meter may be running on how much data is transmitted.

Verizon has just announced per-megabyte pricing beginning in April for a high-speed wireless network that currently covers northeastern cities, the San Francisco Bay area and Silicon Valley as well as Salt Lake City.

Whatever the problems, the market continues to grow.

According to a study released Monday, cell phone ownership increased by 29 percent over the past two years with 62 percent of American adults currently owning cell phones.

Despite the growth in cell phone use, Americans still lag behind Europeans.

About three-quarters of households in Great Britain and Germany have cell phones, said Dave Berndt, a telecommunications analyst for the Yankee Group.

In Scandinavian countries, household penetration is higher than 80 percent.
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