VoiceStream launches new phone network

The company flips the switch on a nearly nationwide network capable of sending e-mails or phone calls at speeds three times faster than its competitors.

VoiceStream Wireless has flipped the switch on a nearly nationwide phone network capable of sending e-mails or phone calls at speeds three times faster than its competitors, including AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless.

On Wednesday VoiceStream unveiled a new series of services, called "iStream," that lets users connect to the faster network and access their Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Notes e-mails. This will be offered to anyone interested and will cost between $3 and $40 a month. Customers will have to buy new phones to use the service.

The move edges VoiceStream ahead of competitors AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless in the race to be first to offer a national network using a technology called GPRS, or general packet radio service. Both AT&T and Cingular have launched portions of their GPRS networks, but are still working on a full deployment.

"Obviously, VoiceStream will have a greater reach now, but the breadth of our network in the long run will allow us to reach more customers domestically and nationally," said AT&T Wireless spokesman Ritch Blasi.

"I don't want to shake my finger at them," said Kim Thompson, a VoiceStream Wireless spokeswoman. "Whether it's GPRS or (other types of phone networks), customers don't really understand that. What they understand is how that will help (them)."

VoiceStream's new GPRS service is available everywhere except California and Nevada, which will be launched in mid-2002, and North and South Carolina, where they are awaiting the resolution of a dispute over the spectrum. VoiceStream believes it owns the rights to the spectrum needed to offer service in the Carolinas. However, so does NextWave, a would-be wireless carrier now in a bitter legal battle with the Federal Communication Commission, which is expected to be resolved soon and free up the spectrum for VoiceStream.

By comparison, Cingular's GPRS network is available in Seattle, Las Vegas, North and South Carolina, coastal Georgia and eastern Tennessee, said Cingular spokeswoman Monica Mears. These service areas were activated starting in January. Cingular expects to have a national GPRS network by 2004, she said.

"We already know how this works; we've already managed a GPRS network with applications and made it successful," Mears said. "We have, in that regard, a jump on our competitors."

AT&T Wireless said its GPRS network is in about three dozen major cities located in and around Seattle, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Portland, Detroit and Florida. The company expects to launch the rest of its national network by the end of next year.

Other carriers like Verizon and Sprint are using a different technology, called CDMA or code division multiple access. Verizon has said it will launch its next-generation network on a nationwide basis by next year.

Dan Wilinsky, a spokesman for Sprint PCS, said the company by next summer will introduce a nationwide network three times faster than what VoiceStream announced today.

The company is testing the service, which is considered third generation, or 3G, because it will offer speeds of 144K, Wilinsky said.

"This is not a real answer consumers are looking for," Wilinsky said of VoiceStream's new offerings. "The finish line is nationwide deployment of 3G."

VoiceStream's new network will let users surf the Internet or make phone calls at an average speed of 40K, and a maximum speed of 56K, or the speed of a dial-up modem. Most wireless phone networks offer speeds that are a maximum of 14.4K. Faster speeds means quicker downloads and better quality voice calls.

Also, it will let VoiceStream offer a service, powered by ViAir, that will let people read many different types of e-mails and listen to several different sets of voicemails all from their cell phones.