Internet Providers Compete to Offer Faster, More Mobile Connection

by Chip Taulbee  on Monday, Dec. 12, 2005 12:00 am  

As Arkansas voters decide this week whether to let the state issue more bonds for highway construction, new onramps are being built for one of the state's other major thoroughfares, the "information superhighway."

Telecoms, Internet service providers and cable companies, alike, are offering more options to access the Internet in Arkansas. Connections are faster and less frequently interrupted, and the new products allow more mobility.

Last month Alltel Corp. of Little Rock rolled out wireless broadband service in central Arkansas.

On Monday Verizon Wireless of Bedminster, N.J., is scheduled to announce an array of wireless offerings, including Internet products, as part of its first foray into the state.

Next week, Aristotle of Little Rock will officially launch wireless broadband services in downtown Little Rock, and the company plans to expand that service throughout the capital city and some surrounding counties by the second quarter of next year.

Meanwhile, the state's largest Internet providers, the artist formerly known as SBC — now AT&T Corp., following the two companies' $16 billion merger last month — and Comcast Cable, continue to promise a wide array of bundled services at faster speeds.

Ironically, one result of the SBC/AT&T merger for Arkansas customers is that customers will have more opportunity to buy Internet access piecemeal instead of in the bundled packages the company has made its calling card.

Aristotle President Elizabeth Bowles agrees: Arkansas' Internet competition is heating up.

They Do EVDO

Some 70 percent of central Arkansans are connected to the Internet, one way or another, and last month Alltel gave its customers yet another way to surf the Web with its wireless broadband service, Axcess Broadband.

Axcess Broadband uses Evolution Data Optimized (EVDO) technology, which allows users to download large, graphics-rich files and streaming audio from the Internet to their laptops, cell phones or other wireless devices.

To be sure, Alltel was not the first wireless carrier to offer EVDO in Arkansas. Sprint Nextel Corp. of Reston, Va., won the EVDO race in Arkansas when it launched the services in October, but only at the Little Rock National Airport. A spokeswoman for the company said, however, that the rest of central Arkansas would be covered by the end of the year.

Sprint's EVDO service, called Sprint Power Vision, offers speeds of 400 Kbps to 700 Kbps with bursts of 2 Mbps.

Axcess Broadband allows users to browse the Internet with bursts up to 2.4 Mbps and average speeds of 300 Kbps to 500 Kbps and costs $60 a month (not including a requisite wireless card).

Alltel's expanding broadband service continues to be a growing part of its business.

Last quarter Alltel gained a record 41,000 net broadband customers despite its wireline business losing access lines, bringing its broadband customer base to 360,000. And the company is scheduled to reach its goal of adding EVDO service to a dozen new markets in 2005.

In Arkansas even more high-speed data products are still to come.

Cingular Wireless of Atlanta, which is a joint venture between AT&T and BellSouth Corp. of Atlanta, does not yet offer its best high-speed data and voice product, BroadbandConnect, in Arkansas. But when it does, customers will be able to use data and voice at the same time with data speeds that could eventually reach 14.4 Mbps.

Company spokeswoman Lauren Butler said that although average speeds will at first be similar to other companies' EVDO products, BroadbandCon-nect will provide higher peak data rates in the near future and is expected to become the world standard for international roaming.

Butler could not say exactly when Arkansas would get the service but said, "We expect to have coverage in most of the major market areas by the end of 2006."

Verizon is scheduled to announce its product offerings for Arkansas on Monday. A company spokesman declined our request for a sneak peek, so will post an update.

At least initially, Verizon's only wireless broadband service for Arkansans will be its relatively slow NationalAccess broadband service, which moseys along the Web with average speeds of 60 Kbps to 80 Kbps and bursts of up to 144 Kbps.

Eventually, however, Verizon customers in Arkansas will be offered the company's BroadbandAccess product, which has speeds comparable to broadband offered by Alltel and other wireless providers.

The NationalAccess plan currently retails for $60 a month, and the faster BroadbandAccess fetches $80 per month or $60 a month if accompanied by certain two-year voice calling contracts.

While wireless broadband products used over cell phone networks offer a wide range of mobility, Aristotle's Bowles discounts their stability.

"Cell phone technology might be better if you're driving out in the field somewhere and you need to get a signal, but if your cell phone is not getting a signal, your wireless won't get a signal," Bowles said.

Aristotle's new wireless broadband will not operate on a cell phone network, thanks to recent technology developments that made the service affordable in the first place.

The 9-megabit Gorilla

Two years ago — or "back in the day," as Bowles describes a time that has since become technologically archaic — the antennas used for wireless broadband needed to tower above all their surroundings.

A building or even a tree could block a signal, so almost any location that did not have a clear line of sight to the antenna could not get a decent signal.

Obviously, wireless broadband networks that reached a wide audience proved a pricey endeavor.

"The original wireless equipment was prohibitively expensive," Bowles said. "It would not have been possible to build a network and offer a cost-effective product unless you wanted to lose money for several years."

More recently, however, the technology became less prohibitive. Antennas can be placed closer to the ground — Aristotle's new antenna on top of the Lyon Building in downtown Little Rock rests a mere seven stories off the ground — and their signals are not as easily disrupted.

Aristotle already offers wireless broadband service in its "beta" or trial version from its Lyon Building antenna, which serves a three- to five-mile radius to the north and east of the building.

Next week the company will begin offering the service in a nine-mile radius around downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock. By the first quarter of next year, Aristotle plans to cover all of both cities; by the second quarter, the company plans to expand east toward Scott and England and west into Saline County.

The speeds range from 512 Kbps to 3 Mbps with lightening-fast bursts. "We call it the 9-megabit gorilla because it has speeds up to 9 mega-bits," Bowles said.

Bowles declined to say how much the infrastructure cost but said Aristotle would not lose money on the product. She anticipates "several thousand" customers will line up for the service.

Business products start at $69 a month, and residential products start at $40 a month.

Aristotle's marketing will mostly target business customers, and Bowles boasts the security is just as good as a wired connection.

"This is not WiFi," she said. "This is not like when you go into Sufficient Grounds and open up your laptop and you see a wireless signal and you hop on.

"This is completely secure. You cannot tag on or piggyback on the signal unless you're an Aristotle customer."

Aristotle's wireless broadband also makes a good platform for businesses to run their Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), Bowles said.

Speedier Service

SBC already offered VoIP for businesses, but picked up residential VoIP in the AT&T merger, AT&T's CallVantage.

So far the new AT&T has held off on what other specific plans the merged companies will bring, instead saving those announcements for what the company says will be the biggest ever marketing campaign for either SBC or AT&T.

AT&T did say it plans to leverage its networks to offer customers voice and online communication around the globe via one provider.

AT&T Arkansas president Ed Drilling said, "Our goal is to take the digital lifestyle to wherever people want to be."

The company will continue bundling different communication and entertainment options, but federal regulators have also insisted that the new AT&T also offer some of its products individually.

AT&T's merger agreement with the Federal Communications Commission requires that within a year the company must offer standalone DSL service to customers in Arkansas and the 12 other states where the former SBC operated.

That means Arkansas customers no longer have to buy land-line telephone service to get AT&T DSL.

Arkansas' other Internet-providing behemoth, Comcast, has made much progress, especially in the speed department. Since the beginning of the year, the company has boosted its 3 Mbps service to 6 Mbps and its 4 Mbps service to 8 Mbps — and for no additional charge.



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