updated 10/18/2004 3:10:45 PM ET 2004-10-18T19:10:45

A top networking gear producer plans to offer a speedy new cellular technology that's an alternative to DSL and cable Internet access with the added advantage of being available on the road.

NetGear Inc. is designing a broadband modem for use with a long-range wireless data service called Flash-OFDM that is currently being trialed by Nextel Communications Inc., T-Mobile International and Vodafone PLC.

The hardware would interconnect Flash-OFDM, which was developed by startup Flarion Technologies Inc., with personal computers and networks using Ethernet or Wi-Fi technology.

NetGear also may develop a card for laptops that would enable mobile access using Flash-OFDM.

The announcement, planned for Monday, may be a sign that Nextel or another major cell phone company is preparing to move beyond trials to full deployment of the Flarion technology.

Without a commitment from at least one service provider, equipment makers such as NetGear are generally hesitant to invest in launching a new product based on a nascent technology. Otherwise, there would be no use and no customers for the product once it's introduced.

Both NetGear and Flarion officials declined to comment on any potential carrier commitment, though Flarion president Mike Gallagher asserted that, "we will have commercial operators in 2005. We'll know soon enough."

Nextel won't discuss any plans for Flarion beyond the current trial in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina.

It is no secret, however, that Nextel wants to replace its slowpoke data connection before its coveted legions of high-revenue business users can be lured by fast new services at Verizon Wireless and other rivals.

Coming just a week after Siemens AG of Germany said it will build network equipment based on Flarion technology, the NetGear announcement also may place more pressure on telephone and cable TV companies to enhance their wireless offerings.

Notably, SBC Communications Inc. planned to announce Monday that its 4.3 million DSL subscribers will be offered free Wi-Fi access at 3,900 hot spots until mid-April, and afterward for just $2 a month.

Meanwhile, the speed and mobility offered by emerging technologies like Flash-OFDM and other robust relatives of Wi-Fi also raise some questions about whether the Bell phone companies may be late with their multibillion dollar plans to replace copper lines with lightning-quick fiber-optic cables.

Flash-OFDM, which stands for Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing, has other attributes beyond speed: It was designed to work well in moving cars and trains while requiring less spectrum than some wireless technologies.

But despite the appeal, it's not clear whether the price will be low enough to get consumers and small businesses to cut the cord on their DSL or cable service, which typically cost $30 to $40 for unlimited usage.

The lowest rate Nextel charges for unlimited use of the Flarion service is $50 a month, and that's discounted for the trial from a list price of $60.

And while Flarion, Nextel and NetGear are positioning Flash-OFDM as a viable alternative to DSL and cable, Verizon Wireless has largely downplayed the notion of relying on its high-speed data service, which uses the EV-DO standard, as a primary Internet connection in a fixed location.

Instead, with $1 billion earmarked for EV-DO deployment, Verizon is positioning its service as a premium product at $80 a month for unlimited use.

Efforts to price high-speed wireless more cheaply have failed. In March, a startup named Monet Mobile Networks using the same technology as Verizon filed for bankruptcy after signing up just 3,000 customers at $40 a month in eight Midwestern cities.

"People want ubiquity because it's easy. They don't have to think about whether this is a hot spot, or if they need to input a user name or a credit card," said Susan Simmons, an industry consultant for The Management Network Group. "But ultimately, those services are expensive, so I think it will be challenging to have a significant number of users pay those prices vs. free Wi-Fi services in places and BlackBerry" wireless e-mail devices.

For the same reasons, Simmons expects that Wi-Max, an emerging standard that's drawn prominent backing from Intel Corp., will be limited in the near term to fixed locations rather than mobile use.

Clearwire, led by billionaire Craig McCaw, recently launched a wireless precursor to Wi-Max in Jacksonville, Fla., charging homes and businesses from $25 to $35 a month.

The Nextel Flash-OFDM service, priced between $35 and $75 a month, is offered with minimum download speeds ranging from 750 kilobits per second to 1.5 megabits per second (1,500 kbps), and occasional bursts of up to 3 mbps. Uploads range from 200 kpbs to 375 kbps with bursts of 750 kpbs.

That's at least on par with entry-level DSL or cable broadband, which generally top out at 1.5 mbps under optimal conditions, and competitive with premium versions of those wired services.

It's also faster than EV-DO, which Sprint Corp. is also deploying. Verizon, a joint venture between Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone, is promising EV-DO downloads of 300-to-500 kbps.

There also may be obstacles for Flarion and other technologies in terms of how much spectrum cell phone companies can afford to devote to wireless data and Web surfing before it encroaches on their capacity for voice calls.

About 2,000 people are using the Flarion service in the North Carolina trial, which began in February with leased spectrum covering 1,300 square miles, so a launch in a larger, more crowded market using Nextel's own spectrum might prove more challenging.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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