posted by David Adams on Wed 25th Sep 2002 15:53 UTC
IconThe information that I could find on the web about Sprint’s new '3G' high-speed data service was a little short on solid information, so I spoke with Kevin Packingham, Senior Manager of Business Marketing for SprintPCS’ new Vision service. I sought him out because Ubiquitous, affordable high speed wireless data services are something of a holy grail for tech-savvy road warriors like myself, so I received each morsel of information about Sprint’s new service with great interest. Mr. Packingham spoke over the phone and he clarified many of the questions that I had about the new service.

I am interested in the Vision service both for its potential as a conduit for laptops, PDAs, and other devices to connect to the internet through connection with a phone (via cable or bluetooth for example) and also as a service available for purpose-specific handheld devices like the Handspring Treo or PocketPC device from Toshiba that SprintPCS is offering. I am not particularly interested, however, in some of the banner services that SprintPCS is promoting, namely the ability to send photos and download ring tones, and I’m only moderately interested in advanced text messaging.

This service will be billed by the Megabyte of (download or throughput) bandwidth used, rather than by how many minutes you are connected. The Vision service is an always-on service, though when the phone or card is in power-saving suspend mode, network services are suspended.

Network speeds

The SprintPCS Vision network allows for a real-world connection bandwidth of slightly better than a home modem user, though Mr. Packingham insisted that with compression in use, it will be noticeably speedier to browse the web or download files using the Vision network than a 56k modem. The Vision high speed data services are apparently available across the whole SprintPCS network, with comparable available bandwidth at each cell site, though just as signal strength from a particular tower will degrade as more users connect to it, bandwidth and signal strength from this service will also diminish as the sites become overloaded.

Connecting a laptop

It will be possible to connect a laptop or other device to a Vision-enabled mobile phone, though at this time this “connection kit” is not available for all phones. The old SprintPCS internet connection kit was a serial cable that plugged into the phone. It allowed for a painfully slow connection via SprintPCS’ old network, but it worked. I have been told that the new kit is USB-based, but was not able to get much information on it. Expect a review of the capabilities of the connection kit once I get my hands on one. There was no indication that there were plans to allow connection via bluetooth in the future, and currently no SprintPCS phone supports Bluetooth. Mr. Packingham did not have the gory details for how the connection kit will work, or whether it will work with non-Windows systems. The old system came bundled with special dialing software, but it was not necessary as all that was required was a special modem script. He did state that they have stuck with industry standard protocols wherever possible. We will have to see how flexible these options are once the connection kits are more widely available.

Device-only Service

There is also a PC Card device for laptops that allows the computer to connect directly. SprintPCS offers special accounts for these devices that do not come with voice service, but come bundled with a specific number of Megabytes of bandwidth available. To know how much bandwidth you have used, you will be able to access your usage via an interface built-into the device on some devices, via the SprintPCS web site, or by calling *4 on your handset. In order to encourage the adoption of the Vision service, they’re offering the first three months free and they have also priced the bandwidth so there isn’t a harsh penalty for going over the limit since they understand that not everyone has an innate sense of when they’ve used up the introductory 2 megabytes.

Killer App

The feature that SprintPCS seems to be hoping is their “killer app” to promote uptake by businesses is their SprintPCS Business Connection. It’s a customizable service that allows businesses to make their private Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes networks available to mobile users. It consists of custom configuration of gateways on the SprintPCS side and lightweight Outlook and Notes clients on the handset side. With the inclusion of a full-featured browser and the ready availability of network-enabled Palm and PocketPC apps, it would be easy to create interfaces to other business server-side applications, even custom ones.

The Device

I was able to spend a bit of time with the Sprint PCS Handspring Treo 300 device, and found it to be . . . almost there. As a phone, it’s good. It’s a little larger than the StarTAC that I have used for many years, but it’s a lot smaller than my StarTAC and my Palm V together. I’ll save a detailed review of the device for another time. The Vision service was the perfect match for the Treo. Nowadays, I have become so accustomed to being able to pop online whenever I want that I find my old Palm V to be an annoying waste of potential. How I wish I could just browse through my email from it, or check on movie listings, or publish my calendar to the web for my colleagues to see. I wish I could update my weblog from my Palm, or check the weather forecast. Check on my eBay auctions.

The Value

With most of the email-enabled devices these days it will cost you $40 minimum to have basic wireless internet functionality. With SprintPCS vision, it’s $10 to get started, and it gave me everything I wanted. I’m not sure how much over the initial 2 megabytes I would need, but it’s nice to be able to get started for ten bucks.

The Speed

On the Treo, I was able to bring up some favorite web sites, like OSNews (the non-WAP version), and even check some browser-based email. Some of the sites looked a little mangled on such a small screen, but it was all there. Sprint has set up some clipping services that make checking on stuff like stocks and movies quite painless. As for what we’re all wondering about, the speed? The speed was good. Not a pocket OC-3, but more or less like a decent modem connection. It’s fun to play with, and I could get seriously addicted.

The Last Word

Since I haven’t been able to take the SprintPCS Vision system through a complete run-through, I can’t make a firm recommendation yet, but from what I’ve seen so far I like it. Biggest downside? The Vision-enabled phones are expensive. You’re looking at $300 bucks for a decent phone, and $599 for the Treo 300. The service is quite fairly priced; especially considering that SprintPCS’ regular mobile phone packages are among the more economical of the regular carriers. My recommendation: head on down to your local Sprint store and leech some bandwidth in the showroom.

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