By Columnist
msnbc.com
updated 12/16/2004 4:08:48 PM ET 2004-12-16T21:08:48

What the world needs now is a good, cheap wireless broadband connection to the Internet.  I’m not talking about Wi-Fi. I mean something you can use anywhere in your community, not just at an airport lounge or a Starbucks.

We used to have that here in New York and a few other cities around the country. It was called Ricochet. For the hardware, you purchased either an external or PC card modem.  It would connect with boxes attached to light poles in the street and you were able to get on the Internet at high speeds. 

At the time, before DSL or cable modem access was available, I ran my entire home network via Ricochet. I was also using the modem in my laptop and my Pocket PC to get e-mail and stream video. It was very cool.

But many people thought Ricochet’s monthly fee was too high and the service went belly-up early in 2001. (I believe the monthly fee was something like $40. What are you paying for your non-portable DSL or cable broadband service now?) It made a brief reappearance in New York in the days following 9/11, when emergency workers needed a way to communicate. Ricochet has since returned in limited markets but, sadly, not in New York.

Can you reach me now?
Enter EV-DO, a technology being rolled out by Verizon Wireless on its next-generation, 1xRTT high speed, CDMA data network. Verizon calls its service Broadband Access and claim it can provide users with typical speeds of 300-500 kbps and bursts of up to 2 Mbps.

There are a few phones and PDAs which can take advantage of the new higher speeds but I wanted to test what a modern-day laptop could do with EV-DO.  So, I asked the people at Sierra Wireless to send me one of their AirCard 580 PC card modems to try.  Once it was installed it took less than 30 minutes for me to be totally addicted.

The 580 can operate on the 1850-1990 MHz high-speed network and can also fall back to the lower speed cellular speeds on the 824-894 MHz networks when EV-DO is not available.  Luckily, where I was testing, I had no problems obtaining high speeds.

After installation of the special software onto an IBM X40 notebook, I was ready for action.  The computer utilizes the Sierra Wireless card as a modem (rather than a networking card which automatically connects when you first boot up). You have to press a button on a new little window in the middle of your computer screen to connect to the network.  Logging in takes about 15-20 seconds.

Speed-wise, Verizon’s EV-DO connectivity lived up to its promises. I easily obtained DSL speeds in my home, on the street and even inside some businesses where people were fascinated by Verizon’s accomplishment. 

In New York, the Sierra Wireless/Verizon combination worked the first time, every time. When I took my laptop with me on a trip to Austin, Texas, it worked the first day but not the second.  It took a few tries to get someone at the Verizon help desk to admit that there was a state-wide problem with both high-speed and cellular connections. Once the problem was fixed, everything worked perfectly.

Pricey, but that could change
As for the service, Verizon is adding more locations each week. Currently, Broadband Access is available in Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Dallas, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Milwaukee, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, Tampa, Washington D.C. and West Palm Beach. It’s also available in a number of airports around the country including Houston’s Bush/Intercontinental where it worked perfectly for me.

At the top I mentioned that what we need is a good, cheap service.  And, you may have noticed that so far I haven’t mentioned the price.  The modem card is affordable.  Currently, Verizon is selling one for $49.99 after discounts. The monthly service, on the other hand, could be the stumbling block.  Verizon is asking $79.99 per month for their package of unlimited Broadband Access (high-speed) and National Access (regular cellular speeds in non-Broadband areas).

I can rationalize this in every way possible, but the bottom line is that it’s still a lot of money.  Remember, that’s just the monthly fee for one modem/device.  In devices with built-in cellular phones monthly voice services would be an additional charge.

Verizon is betting that $80 a month is affordable for business people who need high-speed access on the go.  For those people, and for others who want the fastest available, I agree.  Once you experience the speed and ease of the service, you’ll understand. 

I’m hoping that once other wireless providers begin marketing their high-speed wireless broadband competition will prevail and prices will come down. If it all cost the same wouldn’t you be interested in portable, high-speed, wireless Internet connection instead of being tethered to a Wi-Fi network at home?

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