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WiFi networks, those wireless “hotspots” popping up in offices, businesses, and the neighborhood Starbucks, will get you on the Internet quickly and easily, and keep you connected-provided you don’t stray too far from your seat. For all its convenience, a WiFi network has one big shortcoming: a range of some 200 feet (maybe 300 if your hotspot doesn’t have walls). Walk too far away and you might as well chisel that e-mail to your compliance officer into the pavement-it isn’t going anywhere. That’s left a lot of laptop-toters wishing there was a longer-range option for wireless broadband, and a lot of vendors trying to give it to them. We’re not quite living in an anywhere-anytime broadband world yet, but some new technologies are getting us close, with new offerings from a couple of cellular phone providers. One of the first services out of the gate is BroadbandAccess, from Verizon Wireless. Essentially, this consists of a card you plug into your laptop to access the Internet no matter where you are. Well, no matter where you are as long as you’re in one of the 32 major markets (and growing) where BroadbandAccess is available (at press time Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Boston were in; San Francisco was out). The big benefit is that you don’t need to be in a hotspot to go online; you just need to be within range of Verizon’s network, which, like a traditional cellular system, can cover an entire metropolitan area. Yet mobile Internet access from cell phone providers hasn’t exactly hit the bull’s-eye in the past. First there was a technology called WAP, which was a hit only with those determined to find the slowest and most frustrating way to check e-mail on their cell phone. Then there were notebook cards to provide on-the-go Internet access via less-than-speedy 2G (second generation) cellular networks. Suffice it to say, the legacy of slow-and frustrating-lived on. So I approached Verizon’s service with more than a little skepticism about BroadbandAccess, which uses yet another plug-and-pray notebook card. But after testing it for a week, I think Verizon may be on to something. To be sure, the service is not as fast as the broadband you have coming into the office via a T1 line, or even the wireless coming off the cable modem in your home. There is some noticeable lag. But not much, thanks to Verizon’s upgraded 3G network (Verizon claims download speeds of between 400 to 700 kbps-compared to T1 speeds of 1.5 Mbps). For the most part, the lag was a minor inconvenience. Web pages downloaded reasonably quickly, and the few glitches I experienced-such as being occasionally disconnected from the network and having to reconnect manually-were quickly forgiven once I logged on to BroadbandAccess from a moving bus. I was able to surf the Web, and receive and send e-mail while looping downtown Manhattan, with no noticeable changes in access speed. Even as the bus alternatively crawled and sped through Manhattan’s Financial District, I had fast, uninterrupted access to the Internet. Then I did it again while crossing New York Harbor on the Staten Island Ferry-amazing. Of course, for what BroadbandAccess costs, you’ll need to get used to passing up the limo and riding buses. Unlimited access runs $80 per month, and the notebook card will set you back another $100 (after the $100 rebate you get for committing to two years of service). On the upside, the software that manages the BroadbandAccess service (Windows-only right now) is easy to use, and can also be set to check for any Wi-Fi networks that may be available in the area, letting you toggle between Wi-Fi and BroadbandAccess as you desire. There are some caveats to keep in mind about 3G broadband, however. While download speeds are reasonably fast, upload speeds-the rate at which information flows from your computer to the Internet-is another story, often far slower than traditional broadband. That’s because cellular networks were designed for data applications where an upload typically consists of just a mouse click, telling the network which Web page you want sent to your computer. So download speeds are more critical, because that’s the direction in which most data is flowing. While this poses no problem when you’re surfing the Web, it can mean delays-and trouble-when you’re sending large files, like sending a large spreadsheet as an e-mail attachment. “Services like Verizon’s are a trade-off,” says Philip Solis, senior analyst at ABI Research, a technology market research firm in Oyster Bay, New York. “You get ubiquitous coverage, but slower speeds.” Cellular networks also tend to suffer from a bit of delay, or latency, before sending data, making them less than ideal for games. Verizon isn’t the only vendor homing in on the mobile broadband market. In June, Sony Corporation announced that its latest VAIO T Series notebooks would feature technology from Cingular Wireless LLC that enabled them to access the Internet-sans hotspot-via the carrier’s own 3G network, called EDGE. Sony claims download speeds of 80 to 130 kbps, far less than Verizon’s service, but significantly greater than a dial-up modem. As the laptops will also contain a Wi-Fi adapter, users will be able to switch between Wi-Fi and Cingular’s network. The 3.1-pound laptops start at $2,200; like Verizon, Cingular is charging $80 per month for unlimited access. Another alternative is just a bit further down the road. Called WiMax-for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access-this technology is like supersized Wi-Fi, boosting wireless range from a couple of hundred feet to a couple of dozen miles (though in urban settings, five to ten miles will likely be more realistic). One WiMax tower will provide Internet access for an entire metropolitan area-but with capabilities that will exceed even those of today’s most advanced cellular networks. “WiMax is going to offer better performance than 3G,” says Lindsay Schroth, senior analyst for broadband access technologies at Yankee Group, a market research firm in Boston. “It’s capable of a higher bandwidth, so it’s going to be faster.” The first implementations of WiMax-expected later this year and in early 2006-won’t be aimed at mobile users. Instead, WiMax will initially be used at fixed locations, as an alternative (or backup) to traditional T1, cable-modem, and DSL broadband. It will also provide broadband access to remote areas where cable and DSL providers have yet to tread. But a mobile version of WiMax is in the works, and analysts expect to see the technology incorporated into laptops by 2007. For broadband providers, particularly cable providers, WiMax could be a powerful sales tool, giving customers Internet access anywhere the provider has a WiMax network in place. For users, WiMax will mean one more way to get online on the go-and pay all of those wireless bills. Alan Cohen is a New York-based freelance writer who reports frequently on technical issues.

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