Next-generation cell phones debut at Comdex

Get ready for a faster wireless Web. The latest cellular phones and modems on display here at Comdex will be capable of data speeds faster than today's wired 56-kbps hookups--when they're used on next-generation wireless networks, which are soon to roll out.

Kyocera Corp., LG Electronics Inc., and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. are among the major companies showcasing 1XRTT handsets, phones that can be used right away on today's CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) networks (the type of wireless network used by Sprint Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc.). But these models also support the faster, more efficient 1XRTT upgrades to those networks. Expect to see them in stores by Christmas or very early in 2002. Samsung and Novatel Inc. were among the other vendors that showed off GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) products, which work with the faster versions of today's GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) networks, such as those used by AT&T Corp. and VoiceStream Wireless Corp., as well as throughout Europe.

The 1XRTT specification, which is in final trials by both Sprint and Verizon at various locations around the country, theoretically supports data speeds of up to 144 kbps, compared to today's 14.4-kbps maximum. Phone vendors say real-world speeds on deployed 1XRTT networks, like the one already used in Korea, are more in the 60 to 80 kbps range. That's still a healthy speed bump over today's pokey 9.6-kbps data speeds that make wireless Web usage a relatively time-consuming endeavor.

To take advantage of this new bandwidth, these phones will eventually support a new generation of wireless applications based on various programming languages. In many cases, these new apps will be provided through software upgrades.

Not just fast data

Even before 1XRTT networks offer high-bandwidth wireless data services, advocates say they will bring other benefits to both the carriers and customers. The 1XRTT networks have much greater capacity than existing networks, so calls are more likely to go through and less likely to be dropped, especially at busy periods. The networks also operate more efficiently, so phones require less power to access them, and handsets are likely to run longer between charges.

Carriers have yet to formally launch the networks, although that's expected by spring. Neither have they announced prices for either the phones or, more importantly, the new high-speed data services. Judging from the handsets shown at Comdex, users can expect most of these next-generation phones to look a lot like the latest current models.

LG InfoComm, for example, is upgrading its Sprint TP-5200 phone to the TP-5250. It's a dual-mode (CDMA 1900 MHz and analog) phone that will support 1XRTT where available. Other features include dual monochrome LCD (liquid crystal display) screens--one on the outside of the flip-up case, another on the inside--advanced Tegic T9 text input, e-mail and short messaging service (SMS) capability, and a couple of games. LG says the Java-based phone will be able to support the Java applications Sprint eventually plans to deploy over 1XRTT. Since the otherwise similar TP-5200 sells for US$180 to $200 (or less if you're activating a new phone number), LG expects the TP-5250 won't cost much more, and may even carry the same price.

More models

Verizon, meanwhile, will be offering LG's VX1 phone. Also a clamshell design with dual monochrome LCDs, it will support both the 1900 MHz and 800 MHz flavors of CDMA, their 1XRTT upgrades, and analog. You'll be able to use software to upgrade this phone to support Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless (BREW), the Qualcomm-developed programming language Verizon will be using to deploy applications over its 1XRTT networks. The VX-1's predecessor, the TM-510, currently sells for about $150, but Verizon hasn't yet announced its pricing strategy.

LG has also developed a combo 1XRTT phone and personal digital assistant that Verizon will sell as the VX-9000. It, too, supports CDMA 1900 and 800 as well as analog voice calls. Using a proprietary operating system, the device has a lid that flips up to reveal a Palm-style monochrome screen with a small set of Web navigation buttons. These include a button to launch the device's browser and three user-programmable keys for retrieving pages or information. The device can be synched with Outlook, ACT, or Lotus Notes. It has 72MB of memory--enough to store a couple of thousand contacts--and ships with two games.

Samsung is displaying several 1XRTT handsets in its booth, including the tri-mode SCH-N370 Verizon phone, the SPH-N350, and SPH-A450 Sprint phones. The company is also showcasing its SGH-Q105 GPRS phone, with one-touch Internet access and a large display. However, this phone is not yet for sale.

Kyocera's 1XRTT lineup includes the 2235 and 2255 tri-mode phones (for CDMA 1900, CDMA 800, and analog service). Both offer Internet and SMS services, games, voice dialing, and other features. The 2255 has a bright blue screen and is already selling on Sprint's Web site for $130. GPRS phones are already being marketed by a number of other vendors, including Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola and others.

Beyond phones

Other vendors are also beginning to introduce products that aren't actually phones but that take advantage of next-generation networks to broaden the market for wireless services.

Novatel has begun shipping the Merlin C201 PC Card, a wireless GPRS modem. Plug it into a notebook or Pocket PC in an area where GPRS has been enabled, and you can access the Internet at real-world speeds of about 33 kbps to 56 kbps. The device is just rolling out, and again, carriers set the prices, but you can expect to pay several hundred dollars. Sierra Wireless has also announced both GPRS and 1XRTT PC Cards.

Pricing for GPRS services is also up in the air. VoiceStream currently imposes a $2.99 surcharge on the first megabyte of data downloaded via its IStream GPRS service, but $10 for each additional megabyte. At those rates, it won't pay to download MP3s over your wireless Web service.

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