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Nextel wireless broadband service due by late 2006

Cell phone operator to use next-gen cell phone gear, or something even faster from upstart Flarion.

Nextel Communications is at least a year away from launching national mobile broadband services, the company confirmed this week, making it late to the party compared to rivals such as Verizon Wireless.

The nation's fifth-largest cell phone service provider has been testing various 3G wireless data technologies and has not yet announced its choice. Top contenders include EV-DO, which offers speeds of up to 386Kbps, or even faster but lesser-known wireless technology from Flarion Technologies known as FLASH-OFDM.

Nextel spokesman Aaron Radelet on Tuesday said WiMax is not in the running for the carrier's planned broadband service, citing a lack of appropriate spectrum licenses. Nextel is licensed to provide wireless services in the 1.9Mhz band, whereas WiMax currently uses the 2.5Mhz band.

Kendra Petrone, a spokeswoman for the WiMax Forum, which represents commercial WiMax interests, said work is underway to push WiMax into other bands and make it more viable for wireless carriers. But for now, she admitted, WiMax is not yet ready for mobile broadband services.

"Mobility won't be built into the WiMax standard for another couple of years," she said. "Nextel is pushing ahead and not waiting for WiMax."

WiMax is radio technology that promises two-way Internet access at several megabits per second, with ranges of several miles. Backers of the technology believe it can challenge DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable broadband services because it offers similar speeds but costs carriers less to set up, since installation doesn't require roads to be torn up.

The technology is expected to be particularly useful for getting broadband service to remote areas economically or physically out of reach of conventional wired networks.

Bin Shen, Nextel's senior director of strategic marketing, told wireless trade publication MobilePipeline last week that WiMax simply isn't up the job of delivering broadband to mobile subscribers.

Nextel's decision is a reminder that while WiMax holds great promise and has broad industry support from the likes of Cisco Systems, Intel, Fujitsu Microelectronics America and others, it's still in the early stages of development, and that services based on the technology probably won't be available until the end of next year.

Regardless of its technology choice, Nextel Communications expects to have a nationwide wireless broadband network in place by late 2006, at the earliest, leaving it badly trailing its competitors. Cell phone service providers have spent billions of dollars building high-speed wireless networks so that they can sell new services such as high-speed Web access, network gaming and wireless access to office e-mails. The carriers are trying to find new sources of revenue because of a competition-driven plunge in the price of their main product: phone calls.

Verizon Wireless already has 70,000 wireless broadband subscribers and plans to double the number of areas where BroadbandAccess is available by the end of 2005. Nextel will also be competing with AT&T Wireless, which has a wireless broadband network in six cities and Sprint, which intends to launch high-speed Net services in two Midwest cities by year's end.