Cingular poised to lead in speed
Cingular Wireless reaffirmed yesterday it would begin to install the world's fastest wireless data networks by the end of the year.
Seattle Times technology reporter
NEW ORLEANS — Cingular Wireless reaffirmed yesterday it would begin to install the world's fastest wireless data networks by the end of the year, allowing the United States to leapfrog past advances found in most of Europe and Asia.
The announcement came at the annual Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association wireless conference in New Orleans, where the industry discusses trends and technologies.
Cingular, which acquired Redmond-based AT&T Wireless in late October, also said it hit a milestone: It has 50 million subscribers to its service, nearly 30 percent of the U.S. market.
Speaking to a group of media and analysts, Cingular Chief Operating Officer Ralph de la Vega said it was an accomplishment no one thought possible last year.
"After the merger, lots of people believed that with all the disruptions, we would be easy pickings for the competition," he said, "but we stayed very focused on our strategy and knew we would succeed."
Since the merger closed in October, Cingular has added 3 million subscribers, making it the largest carrier in the country. Verizon Wireless is second, with about 44 million subscribers at the end of 2004.
To remain on top, Cingular has committed to rolling out some of the hottest technologies in the industry. One of those commitments is the launch of high-speed data networks that would allow data-heavy applications such as multiplayer gaming and video conferencing to work without awkward delays.
The top U.S. carriers have already committed to rolling out 3G, or third-generation, wireless technology, the standard across much of Europe and Asia that is beginning to spread in the U.S.
Under 3G, data transmission speeds are in the same class as other broadband technologies.
In Cingular's case, the company is taking speed to the next step by rolling out what some are calling 3.5G.
The latest technology is no exception when it comes to the complicated acronyms the wireless industry uses.
Cingular said yesterday its 3G service, also called UMTS (universal mobile telecommunications system), is already in six markets, including Seattle. AT&T Wireless launched service in those markets before the merger.
By year end, the company expects to have service in 15 to 20 markets, according to Kris Rinne, Cingular chief technology officer.
For 3.5G, or HSDPA (high-speed downlink packet access), Cingular is planning a launch in some cities by the end of 2005. All subsequent rollouts in the U.S. would get UMTS and HSDPA simultaneously, Rinne said.
Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS, both rolling out 3G right now, use a different flavor of technology.
The differences between the 3G and 3.5G centers are twofold. The latter uses broadcast spectrum more efficiently, allowing more people to connect to a cell tower at one time without sacrificing speeds. UMTS can handle only 12 people on one tower at a time at peak speeds.
The other difference is in bandwidth. With the faster 3.5G, users would be able to download a 5-megabit song in 15 seconds; with UMTS it would take two minutes.
To implement its plans, Cingular has partnered with a number of companies, including Lucent Technologies, to provide the infrastructure.
The only other place in the world using Lucent's technology is the Isle of Man, in the waters between Ireland and England, according to Adam Jahr, senior product manager with Lucent's Mobility Solutions Group.
The two markets are a stark contrast. The U.S. has about 170 million wireless subscribers; the Isle of Man has 60,000 residents.
Cingular said it is able to roll out 3.5G before others because it's easier to deploy both technologies at once. Europe and Asia, meanwhile, are still trying to recoup the costs of rolling out 3G.
"It's likely that Cingular will be the first in the world," Jahr said.
In some respects, the race to install high-speed data networks is reminiscent of the hype that characterized carrier promises to deploy 3G years ago.
Jeff Belk, senior vice president of marketing at Qualcomm, said the wireless development giant's chairman at the time was telling the industry to be cautious because the cellphone industry was still maturing. This time, it's different, Belk said.
The "pain" of installing 3G is gone, he said, because so many other countries have already done it. And installing 3.5G shouldn't be that difficult, he said, because it's mostly a software upgrade.
Still, to be first in anything is daring, said Dominic Rowles, the acting U.S. operations manager at Anite, a British company helping Cingular test its next generation handsets and networks.
"It's always a risk when you are really early," he said. "There's a real emphasis on getting it right."
Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or email@example.com
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