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Cingular launches 3G network

Its BroadbandConnect service will enable mobile users to access high-speed Internet on the road.

Cingular Wireless on Tuesday launched its third-generation network, which it says will give mobile customers high-speed Internet access while on the road.

The new service, called BroadbandConnect, will be available in 16 markets to nearly 35 million people in 52 communities throughout the United States. Cingular, which is jointly owned by BellSouth and AT&T, plans to continue to extend the network throughout 2006.

"Make no mistake about it: Wireless users want the speed and services they've come to expect from their wired connections," Stan Sigman, Cingular's president and CEO, said in a statement at an investor conference in New York on Tuesday. "And today, Cingular is delivering on its promises to provide both the speed and reliability customers need."

Cingular's 3G network uses a technology called HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access), which is a combination of GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) and EDGE (Enhanced Data for GSM Environment). It provides average mobile data download connections between 400 kilobits per second and 700kbps.

Using a laptop modem card that costs about $100 with a qualifying voice plan, Cingular customers can use their laptops to access the Internet or e-mail, download large files and attachments, and run corporate business applications in areas covered by BroadbandConnect.

Customers can sign up for an introductory two-year contract for $59.99, which gives unlimited usage. Other monthly plans are available starting at $19.99 for 5 megabytes of data. Cingular also said it plans to enhance the network to deliver full-motion video and audio sometime in 2006.

Initially, BroadbandConnect will be available only on laptops. But the company plans to announce handset support early in 2006, Ralph de la Vega, chief operating officer at Cingular, told journalists and analysts during a conference call on Tuesday. The company also plans to announce several new services in the next several weeks that will take advantage of the new network, he said.

After spending billions of dollars to upgrade networks, cellular operators are starting to duke it out for mobile customers looking for high-speed broadband services. Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel, which both use a technology called EV-DO, already offer data services over their 3G networks on handsets.

Cingular claims that it has an edge over these other providers. For one, it says that BroadbandConnect's modems are compatible with its older EDGE/GPRS network. As result, if customers wander outside the new 3G network, the modem automatically switches over to the slower EDGE network.

"The (service is) seamless," said de la Vega. "It will continue without users reinitiating the call no matter where they are. The speeds will be slower, but the services will still operate over the EDGE network."

Cingular's EDGE network is available in more than 13,000 cities and towns and in areas along 40,000 miles of highways, providing average data speeds between 70kbps and 135kbps. Cingular customers can also access data services in more than 90 countries.

Cingular will initially launch the BroadbandConnect service in Austin, Texas; Baltimore, Md.; Boston; Chicago; Dallas; Houston; Las Vegas; Phoenix; Portland, Ore.; Salt Lake City; San Diego; San Francisco; San Jose, Calif.; Seattle and Tacoma, Wash.; and Washington.