With promises of true broadband speeds, consumers are beginning to enjoy new networks that push cellular connections into the next generation. The "4G" (fourth-generation) tech is the next step for mobile surfers who want anytime, anywhere downloads of music, video, and other Web fare.
The initial speeds are fast enough that some consumers are even cutting the wire for home data service. They're replacing their cable and DSL modems in much the same way that they cut landline voice service in favor of cellphones.
Clear, a brand launched by 4G pioneer
[It was in the past decade that mobile tech began to dominate.]
Looming issues such as potential usage caps and overstrained networks make it unclear how many consumers can wholly depend on the new 4G networks as their Internet provider. But the fact that it's a potential option marks a shift for cellphone companies, which for decades were primarily about voice calls. The 4G networks are turning the wireless voice providers into true Internet providers, says
That means data as in photos, videos, and the apps popularized by the iPhone and that are now found in other smart phones. The new services don't yet work with phones, but they work initially with laptops, netbooks, and desktop computers. Hybrid smart phones that will tap the high-speed networks for Internet access and make voice calls on the old 3G and 2G networks won't arrive until later this year, and the selection could be limited for several years.
Even higher speeds are promised by the biggest wireless companies,
AT&T is trailing a bit, with hopes to switch on its 4G service in 2011.
But consumers shouldn't get discouraged at the prospect of wireless Internet, says
The experience nonetheless has AT&T,
AT&T is also encouraging consumers to use its Wi-Fi hot spots. Stephenson suggested, for example, that consumers will primarily tap Wi-Fi connections for the upcoming iPad from Apple. AT&T greatly expanded its hot spots with the 2008 purchase of Wi-Fi provider Wayport.
Wi-Fi is becoming standard on handsets as carriers that once viewed Wi-Fi as a competitor now consider it a help with burgeoning data demands, says
Amid the promise of higher wireless speeds, consumers also face a new round of confusing, competing, and incompatible technologies. It seems that once again, the nation's tech companies couldn't agree on a single standard, and consumers will be forced to pick sides, echoing earlier fights over high-definition video disks and recordable CD formats.
That's the bad news. The good news is that this dispute is likely to disappear in a few years, says Swasey at Visant Strategies. He and other analysts agree that LTE will become the dominant technology.
So in a few years, consumers will again be able to choose service based on price and gear, Swasey says. "You won't have to worry about what's inside a phone," he says. "You'll decide which carrier has the sexiest smart phone that you can afford."
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