Old-time wireless network takes a blow

Cellular Digital Packet Data is one step closer to retirement, as EarthLink introduces new plans to lure customers away from the aging wireless technology.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
3 min read
The aging wireless network technology Cellular Digital Packet Data is one step closer to retirement.

Internet service provider EarthLink this week introduced four new subscriptions to lure at least 14,000 of its customers away from the decades-old wireless technique, said Brent Cobb, an EarthLink vice president.

Like nearly every Web provider with a wireless offering, EarthLink is wrestling with how to wean subscribers from Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD), which was once the most popular method for selling wireless Web subscriptions. But last August, the Federal Communications Commission said it won't require telephone companies to support CDPD by 2007, essentially giving the technology less than four years to live.

EarthLink hopes to lure customers away using the promise of faster downloads and special deals. Its new "Wireless Enhanced Access for Your Laptop" plans connect using a North American cell phone carrier's third-generation data network, which can deliver Web pages or e-mails four times faster than anything CDPD could do, Cobb said. CDPD's peak download speed is 19kbps.

"We intend to migrate those users to a faster network," Cobb said. "We're moving as much of our customer base to" the new plans.

EarthLink added 14,000 CDPD subscribers in September when it partnered with ailing wireless data provider GoAmerica.

The carrier is just the latest Web or cell phone provider to announce plans to move customers away from CDPD, which was first developed by IBM. Perhaps the biggest blow came from AT&T Wireless, one of the United States' two biggest CDPD providers. The carrier expects to stop selling CDPD plans next month and shutter its 7-year-old network by June 30, 2004.

AT&T Wireless is also using speedier networks to entice users to switch over. The carrier is offering CDPD users a series of mMode plans, which can download Web pages twice as fast as CDPD.

Verizon Wireless, the other main CDPD network supplier, is also looking at its network's future, but has yet to make any final pronouncements, according to a representative. The representative would only say that Verizon will be offering CDPD service longer than AT&T Wireless.

The impact of the FCC decision is already being felt by makers of the products needed to connect to CDPD.

Wireless equipment maker Sierra Wireless, which is supplying EarthLink modems for its new subscription plans, believes that CDPD products will represent less than 10 percent of its 2003 overall sales.

Sierra Chief Executive David Sutcliffe recently told analysts to expect a "rapid lowering of demand for CDPD" laptop cards this year, at a rate that will accelerate beginning in June.

EarthLink subscribers migrating to the new plans must buy a modem, which costs around $300. Monthly subscriptions, which start at $25, set a threshold for data that can be downloaded. Subscribers get charged per kilobit of data downloaded when they exceed their monthly limit.

The new EarthLink service is available in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, Atlanta, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Miami and San Jose, Calif. The service will be expanded to other cities throughout the year.