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Evolution Revolution: EV-DO Set to Wack Wi-Fi?

How much would you pay for wireless broadband access? That all depends, right? Where you are; where you're heading; what device you're using; what the access speed is (real, not posted); and how secure the network is.

So far, wireless broadband has been dominated by Wi-Fi. Quite a leap forward from no service, Wi-Fi is nonetheless limited in range, unreliable in speed and security, and, often inconvenient or pricey. Plus you can't access it wherever you go.

But that was before evolution, or rather EV-DO.

Broadband news in recent months has been abuzz with this latest challenger to Wi-Fi. EV-DO (Evolution Data Only, or Evolution Data Optimized) is a wireless radio broadband data protocol that CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) mobile phone providers are deploying across the globe in countries such as Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea, Brazil and the United States. Boasting terminal download speeds of up to 2.4 Mbps, it can run significantly faster than the competing EDGE (Enhanced data rates for GSM Evolution) networks being employed by GSM providers such as Cingular Wireless (and several in Europe), which clock in at up to 384 Kbps in packet mode.

EV-DO's biggest advantage over Wi-Fi: users can get service wherever they get a cell signal, compared to the 350 feet or so of indoor signal Wi-Fi offers. (I can already see the new ad: "Can you connect me now?")

Major cellular player Verizon Wireless (owned by Verizon Communications and Vodafone) roiled the waters in August when it made a pre-emptive pricing strike, lowering its new EV-DO service from $80 to $60 per month (as long as you also take the voice service) and announcing seven new markets to bring its total to 60. Verizon followed up several weeks later announcing deals with Dell, HP and Lenovo to both market EV-DO and integrate the technology into those companies' products.

Verizon is getting the jump on major EV-DO competitor Sprint-Nextel, which has also announced rollouts for major markets with service plans at $80 per month. Cingular, meanwhile, is relying on a new generation of handset equipment to boost its offerings, and has already announced a laptop integration deal with Sony. In fourth place, Deutsche Telekom-backed T-Mobile USA has built more than 5,000 Wi-Fi hotspots nationwide, which may soon be eclipsed by EV-DO.

EV-DO ain't cheap. And commitment-phobes will balk. An EV-DO Dell PC comes equipped with a card costing $249 and requires a two-year contract for $59.99 per month for the broadband and $79.99 for the voice service. Laptops from Dell and HP will roll out next year; Lenovo's new EV-DO Thinkpads, starting at $799, will hit stores Oct. 11.

Verizon says users will experience network speeds of 400 to 700 kbps. If true--a big "if," according to some naysayers--that's about the same speed as low-cost DSL and cable modem services, only you're not tethered. You can also roam from market to market as long as it's covered by your provider.


The bigger "if" is whether or not the tragedy of the commons will take place in any given market. Because of an overall spectrum shortage, critics contend a significant increase in users could severely degrade average access speeds. Early blog activity on EV-DO indicates some customers aren't picking up signals right away, but these are apparently early kinks in taking networks live.

EV-DO providers are banking on consumer research indicating an increasing demand for mobility, and especially for mobile video content (where the real revenue generator lies). One in eight mobile phone users surveyed said they'd purchase mobile video from their wireless provider, according to research firm In-Stat, which forecasts mobile video subscriber growth from 1.1 million in 2005 to more than 30 million in 2010, with a concomitant revenue surge.

The technology travails behind these announcements are illuminating. What Verizon and Sprint aren't mentioning is the difficulty they had two years ago deploying Wi-Fi networks in major markets. Plus, first-to-market considerations forced them to bypass a more superior technology, EV-DV, or Evolution-Data/Voice, a competing standard developed by Motorola, Nokia and Texas Instruments.

They're also not talking about the insidious industry lobbying campaign underway by telcos and cable operators to convince state legislatures to pass laws blocking municipal deployment of free or low-cost Wi-Fi networks. Fourteen states so far have done so, falling sway to the argument (or is it the campaign funding?) that public municipalities cannot and should not compete with private enterprise.

EV-DO providers envision a future in which a wide range of mobile devices, from laptops to cell phones, can tap into a dazzling array of broadband content, dominated by video (e.g. video streaming, online gaming, video conferencing) and all without an umbilical cord.

Anyone using Wi-Fi the last few years has been both pleasantly pleased when they stumble on a free hotspot and accursed when they can't access or won't pay for it.

That would seem to make EV-DO or EDGE networks a no-brainer.

But that's only looking at the issue from a utilitarian standpoint. Sure, competition is good, and will likely drive wireless broadband pricing down. But there are many, many people out there, not all of whom used to live in New Orleans, who can't afford hundreds of dollars a year for access to information. EV-DO isn't for them, so perhaps it's not as evolved as it appears.

You can reach Will at