Next generation wireless: Will users pay the price?

The prices customers pay for faster wireless bandwidth with next-generation data services will be a key to how fast those services are ultimately adopted.

          The prices customers pay for faster wireless bandwidth with next-generation data services will be a key to how fast those services are ultimately adopted.

          That was one of the messages that emerged at a conference on wireless technologies sponsored by London-based Invest-UK and the Waltham, Massachusetts-based Massachusetts Telecommunications Council. The event took place at the British Consulate in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

          So far, prices for the new services vary widely as wireless carriers try to see what the market will bear, an industry official saays.

          "We're giving trial customers three months of next-generation services free, and after the first month presenting them with a total of their costs and asking, 'Is that value for your money?'" says Chris Hall, managing director at Manx Telecom on the Isle of Man, UK.

          Manx has about 120 trial customers on the Isle of Man using cellphones that average 310Kbit/s of throughput -- up to 20 times what conventional cellphones offer. The phones run colour displays, enable internet browsing, and offer downloading of email and playing of real video. For business users, the phones can also serve as a virtual desktop for consulting email and files wherever they travel on the island, Hall says.

          Rather than divulge what Manx charges for email downloads, Hall says the wireless carrier will digest customer responses to the monthly fees during the next few months.

          In the US, several carriers are rolling out faster networks based on next-generation packet-based switching technologies. Pricing is often based on what it costs to move a megabyte of data, with costs ranging from $US2 per megabyte up to $US7, says Phillip Redman, an analyst at Stamford, Connecticut-based Gartner. "Pricing is a leading inhibitor to the adoption of these services," he says.

          AT&T Wireless Services in Redmond, Washington, is currently offering $US1 per megabyte as its cheapest rate for General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) wireless service, which can provide 20K to 40Kbit/s throughput. But that price is only if a subscriber buys the most megabytes per month now being offered: 200MB of data for $US199 a month.

          Verizon Wireless in Bedminster, New Jersey, launched its Express Network service over the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) 2000 protocol earlier this year. It offers access at faster network speeds of 60K to 144Kbit/s for $US30 a month -- atop its monthly cellular voice plans, based on per-minute usage. (The cheapest is a $US35 monthly voice plan.)

          Verizon also has megabyte pricing plans from $US1 to $US3.50 per megabyte.

          Redman says the speeds are quite enticing with the systems he has tested. But he warned that users might not be prepared for how many megabytes they use. "I was surprised I could use 10 to 15MB an hour, just looking at email and surfing," Redman said.

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