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AT&T Wireless joins race for speedy networks

The carrier flips the switch on a wireless Internet network it claims is the fastest in the United States.

AT&T Wireless on Tuesday flipped the switch on a wireless Internet network it claims is the fastest in the United States.

The carrier said subscribers can now surf the Web or download games at speeds averaging 100kbps to 130kbps, about two times faster than any nationally launched wireless Internet network. A carrier spokesman said subscribers won't be charged extra for the faster service, but they will have to buy new cell phones or modems.

AT&T Wireless is the second major U.S. carrier to recently increase its network speed. Nextel Communications has begun quadrupling speed of its Internet service, from the current 15kbps to somewhere between 60kbps and 80kbps, Chief Executive Tim Donahue told investors Monday.

Cell phone service providers are spending billions of dollars on faster network equipment, hoping to both increase voice calling coverage and make data-oriented services speedier. Selling downloadable games, ring tones and other Web-based features is a big part of most cell phone providers' plans to recoup revenues lost because of intense competition that has slashed the cost of cell phone calls.

"(We're) providing data speeds dramatically faster than 'so-called' 3G (third generation) services offered by other wireless companies," AT&T Wireless Chief Executive John Zeglis said in prepared remarks.

AT&T Wireless is one of 60 carriers worldwide building faster networks using a cell phone standard called EDGE, or Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution. The company already sells one EDGE-capable phone, the Nokia 6200. On Tuesday it introduced a $150 EDGE laptop modem made by Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications that's available only if a customer signs up for a two-year contract. The carrier plans to introduce other EDGE devices made by Motorola, NEC, Siemens, PalmOne, Research In Motion, Samsung and Siemens.

Cingular Wireless is also using EDGE in its network, but AT&T Wireless executives said its own network uses the technology much more extensively. A Cingular Wireless representative was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.

Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless have deployed a technology from Qualcomm called CDMA20001xrtt, which usually operates at about 60kbps to 70kbps.