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Wireless: strings attached

Getting onto the Net "unwired" is the latest rage in cyberspace, but the costs of such service is a mystery to most people who want to surf from planes, trains, and automobiles.

Getting onto the Net "unwired" is the latest rage in cyberspace, but the costs of such service is a mystery to most people who want to surf from planes, trains, and automobiles.

There's no easy answer, but the bottom line is that it typically costs at least 30 percent more than current dial-up access--not only in monthly service fees but in necessary equipment purchases.

That could change, however, as competition heats up. "There's going to be a revolution that should bring down rates," Ben Linder, vice president of marketing at Unwired Planet, said today.

Comparisons are tough because many services are not compatible, but here's what to expect:

A company called Metricom offers Net access through its own network in the San Francisco and Seattle areas. It plans to launch service in Washington, D.C., by year's end.

Metricom's service allows you to download files, graphics and all, at speeds up to 28.8 kpbs, the same as many standard home connections.

Consumers typically pay $10 per month to rent a modem for the service or buy one for $299. Plus, there is a charge of $29.95 per month for unlimited wireless access, as well as an email account.

That base rate is fully one-third more than the monthly fee of $19.95 typically charged by ISPs and online services. But using Metricom's wireless service could save having a second phone line installed at home.

Unwired Planet has deals with AT&T Wireless Services, Bell Atlantic NYNEX Wireless Services, and others to provide Net access from a cellular phone.

That, of course, means you can't download graphics, only information. Still, that data could include email, stock quotes, and up-to-the-minute news and sports scores.

The cell phone for the service costs about $500, plus a monthly fee of $30. That may sound steep to many consumers, but the convenience of getting such information anywhere at anytime is worth it to many consumers, especially to salespeople and stock traders.

The telcos also are offering another brand of wireless Net access that allows you to download files from your laptop using an existing "packet data" network. Again, the modems cost more, ranging from $300 to $1,000 each.

GTE offers a "wireless data service" that lets you download files for as little as $15 per month. That pricing plan lets you download 125KB of information without paying an additional charge, typically 6 cents to 12 cents per kilobyte.

One page of cybertext equals about 1.5KB, according to Jay Sheth, director of business market planning for GTE. That means you'd get to download about 80 to 100 pages of text under GTE's $15 monthly plan.

The comany also offers plans that let you download 1MB of information for $49.99 per month and 3MB for $100 per month.

As reported by CNET, CAI Wireless recently disclosed plans to roll out wireless Internet access as early as January, starting in the Northeast.

Company executives predicted the service would be priced at $35 to $45 per month.

A company called RadioMail also began offering wireless access to the Net this summer.