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Unwired access slated

CAI Wireless Systems unveils plans to roll out wireless Internet access as early as January, another sign that this burgeoning technology may be the next big thing for the Net.

CAI Wireless Systems today unveiled plans to roll out wireless Internet access as early as January, another sign that this burgeoning technology may be the next big thing for the Net.

Later this month, CAI (CAWS) will conduct a market trial of the service in Rochester, New York, using General Instrument's SURFboard cable modems. The combination of the two big industry players in a market trial is sure to give the industrywide effort a boost.

Sources said CAI plans similar trials throughout the Northeast in coming months. The company has some potentially big telco partners, too. Both Bell Atlantic and NYNEX have rights to buy up to 45 percent of CAI, analysts noted.

CAI's wireless Net access is expected to zap data at raw speeds of 27 mbps, faster than T1 connections commonly used by large businesses and way more than 28.8-kbps modems used with many home PCs, and far more convenient for "anytime, anywhere" communications.

There are potential drawbacks, however: a higher price and less reliability than existing services. Many consumers complain that wireless phone service has been hampered by "dropped calls." In addition, competition from other technologies, including XDSL and cable systems, will be intense.

But industry executives remain bullish. "GI's entry into the wireless market is further evidence that MMDS (multipoint multichannel distribution service) technology is here to stay," said John Prisco, chief operating officer of CAI.

The Rochester trial will test different pricing models, including whether consumers will pay more for wireless Net access over existing services and whether pricing will be on a flat or pay-per-use basis. Prisco's hunch is that consumers will pay more for wireless and that they will want a flat-rate pricing structure.

Faced with mounting competition, Prisco predicted that pricing would wind up in the $35-to-$45-per-month range for unlimited use, basically the same price for Net access via ISDN or high-speed cable systems.

CAI is not alone in tapping the wireless Net market. American Telecasting, Zenith Electronics, People's Choice TV, Conifer, and Comwave are testing a wireless system in Lakeland, Florida. American Telecasting also hopes to offer the service commercially in early 1997.

Swedish teleco giant Ericsson and networking vendor Cisco Systems also are teaming up to develop wireless Internet access systems.