EV-DO lights up mobile data

EV-DO likely to be the most widely deployed form of 3G in the U.S. by year-end

The light at the end of the tunnel to 3G mobile data services in the U.S. is getting brighter as technology that builds on Code Division Multiple Access networks comes into view.

Although the rival Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) technology is making headway, CDMA2000-1x Evolution-Data Only (EV-DO) looks likely to be the most widely deployed form of 3G in the U.S. by year-end. That might still be too early for enterprise customers to start rejoicing and writing checks, but it's the beginning of good news for users, especially mobile professionals, analysts say.

Though they are cagey about details, both major U.S. CDMA carriers are heading toward national rollouts. Verizon Wireless Inc. already offers a commercial EV-DO service in the Las Vegas, San Diego and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas and plans to have it available to one-third of its customers by year-end, according to spokesman Jeffrey Nelson. Verizon Wireless sells EV-DO data cards for notebook PCs. Sprint plans to begin rolling out the technology by year-end and offering it nationwide by late 2005 or early 2006.

EV-DO builds on CDMA2000-1x, the data technology that Verizon and Sprint Corp. currently offer nationally, which on average delivers speed in the same range as a 56K bit/sec dial-up Internet connection. By adding EV-DO modules and software to existing base stations, mobile operators can boost performance to between 300K and 500K bit/sec, with peak throughput of more than 2M bit/sec, according to the service providers. That's enough to run business applications and e-mail at a reasonable speed, analysts say.

As EV-DO rolls out in more cities, it will open up new on-the-road capabilities for enterprise employees, according to Lisa Pierce, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

"Trying to do remote e-mail at 56K is not a fun experience," Pierce says. "Siebel doesn't really work at all at 56K."

For businesses, EV-DO should mean easier connectivity and lower costs, Pierce says. Employees who today buy the broadband connections in hotel rooms should be able to get adequate speed on the same EV-DO account they use in their home cities.

EV-DO won't be the only option for fast access on the road. U.S. operators with networks are moving toward national deployments of UMTS, which will offer speeds of 220K to 320K bit/sec with bursts up to 384K bit/sec.

Last month, AT&T Wireless Services Inc. launched UMTS in four cities, with two more set to get the service by year-end. UMTS customers also can buy handsets that use the service, something not available for EV-DO.

Cingular Wireless, which is set to complete its acquisition of AT&T Wireless by year-end, also is seeking proposals for UMTS equipment. Nextel, which uses a third technology called iDEN, plans to increase its data performance to between 40K and 80K bit/sec early next year through a technology called WiDEN. It's also testing a wide-area mobile broadband system called Flash OFDM - Fast Low-latency Access with Seamless Handoff Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing - that could deliver 3M bit/sec.

For 3G in the U.S., broad coverage is key and business data applications on notebooks are what will drive adoption, at least initially, analysts say. For any such service to work for the average corporation, it will have to be offered in at least the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. so users can count on getting access when they travel, according to Forrester's Pierce.

Consumers, who spearheaded adoption of EV-DO when services were rolled out in South Korea in 2002, are likely to follow behind businesses in the U.S., analysts and service providers say. A recent survey of consumers by In-Stat/MDR showed 3G multimedia services, especially streaming video, as a strong potential draw for consumers, according to In-Stat analyst Clint Wheelock. Streaming audio and multi-player games also could catch on, he says.

EV-DO seems to be living up to its promised speed, according to Wheelock, who said he tested the service in San Diego and consistently experienced Verizon's estimated speed.

However, another In-Stat analyst says he thinks real-world results will vary. "Any of these speeds that they (advertise) are going to be under the best conditions, or good conditions, at least," says Alan Nogee. Variations in performance based on location and the number of users on the network will be at least as great as they have been on the 1x network, he predicts. "At least for the initial years, the coverage won't be all that fantastic," he says.

Other high-speed wireless services, particularly Wi-Fi hot spots, might pose some competition, but carriers would be wise to offer them as complements to EV-DO, Nogee and other analysts say.

"These carriers want to be your wireless provider whether it's Wi-Fi or cellular. . . . Eventually it'll be transparent to the user," Nogee says.