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Cingular preps phone-as-modem service

The carrier will allow subscribers to use their mobile phones to connect laptops or PDAs to the Web. Most customers, however, will have to buy more gear to participate.

Cingular Wireless on Tuesday joined the growing number of U.S. wireless carriers betting that people will use their cell phones to connect laptops or personal digital assistants to the Internet.

The service, which debuts in June, will be available to Cingular customers with wireless Web-enabled phones, the company said. Most subscribers, however, will have to buy new software and a cable to use the service. The carrier said it plans to begin selling those items soon.

Customers of Verizon Wireless and AT&T Wireless can already use their cell phones as modems by using the somewhat cumbersome method of attaching a phone with a cable. Other carriers are expected to join the parade in the next few months.

The carriers' efforts are part of a broader attempt to get subscribers to use the wireless Internet networks they have been building during the last few years. So far, the numbers have been disappointing, partly because subscribers have to buy modems that are specifically designed for laptops or PDAs.

The carriers are trying to whittle down the cost by making it possible for nearly every cell phone user to take part. That way, it is more attractive, said Steve Krom, a marketing and product executive at Cingular.

"We want to try to address the largest population set out there," Krom said.

The carriers hope to capture a large amount of the nearly 50 million people expected to use the wireless Internet by 2005. They are battling companies like Aerie Networks and its high-speed wireless network, and the growing number of companies like Sputnik, which sells Internet access over a wireless network using the 802.11 standard.

Cingular's network uses a wireless telephone standard known as GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), which lets a person download information at between 20kbps and 40kbps. Verizon Wireless uses a competing standard from Qualcomm called CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access).

The version of CDMA that Verizon Wireless uses in its "Express Network" launched last year is faster than GPRS, allowing a customer to download information at speeds averaging 40kbps to 60kbps.