Santa is coming early to cell phone users, with a bagful of new goodies, each pricier than the next.
Cingular Wireless is launching a high-speed Internet service similar to those already offered by Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel. BroadbandConnect is being introduced in 16 U.S. cities and will be expanded to 100 metropolitan areas by the end of 2007.
The new service offers connection speeds similar to DSL and costs $60 per month, roughly the same price charged by Verizon and Sprint. German-owned T-Mobile does not have the technology on its network and has not announced any plans to add it.
Verizon Wireless, meanwhile, says its cell phone customers will soon be able to use their phones to watch live TV. The company has signed a deal with Qualcomm to use its new network, currently in development. Verizon Wireless users can already use their phones to watch short video clips but not live broadcasts.
The two companies say they expect to launch the new service in approximately half of the markets already covered by Verizon Wireless broadband network. They say they hope to make the service commercially available in 2006.
Cingular also says it plans to launch a push-to-talk phone service which integrates walkie-talkie and cellular technology across its network. It's intended to compete with Sprint Nextel's push-to-talk service available under the Nextel brand of phones. It's likely that, like Sprint, Cingular will initially target business customers.
Cingular also said it will begin selling a new line of so-called "smart phones" early next year that offer faster access to the Internet than Cingular's existing cellphones. Other hand-held devices that will specialize in music and video will also be available next year.
The new offerings from the cell phone companies are intended largely as a response to the growing popularity of Wi-Fi technology, which provides high-speed access from "hot spots," usually within a few hundred feet of the transmitter.
Google has announced plans to build a free Wi-Fi network throughout the San Francisco area and storm-battered New Orleans hopes to build a public Wi-Fi network to lure businesses and residents back to the Crescent City. Philadelphia was considering a similar plan.
Telephone companies have vehemently opposed municipal Wi-Fi networks, saying they encroach on its business and they are expected to file legal challenges against New Orleans and Philadelphia if the cities move ahead.
"With our 3G service, almost any spot in a city is a hot spot," said Ralph de la Vega, chief operating officer for Cingular Wireless.
But in fact, the service is spotty at best. A continuing ConsumerAffairs.com test of Verizon Wireless' service finds it improving in the Washington, D.C. area, but still too unpredictable for everyday use.
At $60 per month and with laptop plug-in cards costing more than $200 each, the wireless broadband services so far are attractive mostly to business customers.
Cingular's new service is available in cities including Boston, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix and Washington, D.C. The company says it will extend the network to cover most major cities next year, and service 100 metropolitan areas by the end of 2007.
Cingular claims its service won't drop connections when customers leave coverage areas. Instead, its service will transfer such connections to its slower nationwide network, they say.