2006 promises hi-speed wireless boom
At upcoming Consumer Electronics Show, all the buzz looks to be on wireless broadband anywhere.
By Matthew Maier, Business 2.0 staff writer

NEW YORK (Business 2.0) - For those in the technology industry, the real holiday season starts on January 5, when the annual Consumer Electronics Show kicks off in Las Vegas.

A cross between Christmas and the Oscars, CES is one of the largest trade shows in the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of onlookers from around the globe, all eager to see the gizmos and gadgets due out in 2006.

While you'll see all kinds of new gear unveiled at this confab, the real game-changing innovation is wireless broadband—a technology that will give you DSL speeds on your cell phone.

Several years and billions of dollars after they first announced plans to build out high-speed, third-generation wireless networks, Verizon Wireless and Sprint (Research) now have them in place. Verizon (Research) and Sprint, the nation's second and third largest wireless operators, respectively, offer wireless broadband access to cell phones and laptops in the nation's largest metropolitan areas.

Broadband everywhere

For as little as $25 a month, consumers now have access to speeds comparable to those at a Wi-Fi hotspot wherever they travel, without having to stay tethered to a local coffee shop. (The technology that allows this, EVDO, was developed by Qualcomm (Research), which stands to profit no matter which carrier is more successful in selling the service.)

Adding 3G EVDO technology is a no-brainer for cell-phone makers. Motorola (Research), Nokia (Research) and LG all plan to introduce 3G phones that should cost around $150 in 2006, which should make it affordable for the mass market. Features include 1-megapixel cameras, several megabytes of internal memory, and high-speed wireless Internet access.

But PC makers are scrambling to adopt the technology, too. Wi-Fi rapidly went from optional add-on to standard equipment in laptops, and 3G is following the same pattern. This year, Dell (Research), Hewlett-Packard (Research), and Lenovo all announced plans to include chips in their latest laptops that will use Verizon's 3G network, and Panasonic (Research) is embedding Sprint chips in some of its line. You'll see many of these laptops for the first time in January at CES.

3G's threat to Wi-Fi

The widespread adoption of 3G networks and services could have a big impact on Wi-Fi. But for road warriors—the people most willing to pay $10 a day for access to, say, T-Mobile's network of Wi-Fi hotspots, 3G could present a threat. Unlike Wi-Fi, which requires users to stay within 300 feet of a hotspot, 3G lets users to roam across a large geographical area without having to worry about losing coverage.

3G's also vastly easier to use: You sign up for one account and pay one bill, while relying on Wi-Fi hotspots could easily find you signing up for half a dozen hotspot providers and having to track as many usernames and passwords. Wi-Fi operators have been striking roaming agreements to make the process easier, but using Wi-Fi on the road remains an annoyance. Inevitably, there's no hotspot at the one place where you really want to get online.

Slugging it out at CES

The two technologies aren't mutually exclusive, however, and Wi-Fi remains by far the most popular technology for home networks. Wi-Fi equipment makers are hardly standing still. At CES, Kodak (Research) plans to update its EasyShare camera, which includes built-in Wi-Fi access, to make it easy for users to post pictures to photo-sharing sites like Flickr, and Nokia is building Wi-Fi access into its N80 phone, also debuting in Las Vegas.

It's too early to declare Sprint and Verizon's EVDO a success—it's too new a technology—but CES will be a good showcase for the coming broadband battle between 3G and Wi-Fi. Who will win? Anyone who wants to connect on the go.


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