Analysts and ambitious companies for years have painted pictures of a world where access to email and the Internet could be as close as the nearest cellphone. But with the exception of a few slow services and spotty coverage, the United States has seen little in the way of genuine wireless data offerings.
Europe to date has led the market, as some companies already offer slow but more ubiquitous access to email and other data services through wireless phone connections.
The technology, however, is finally making its way across the Atlantic. AirTouch Communications is now demonstrating a wireless data service to be introduced in a few U.S. cities. GTE and the WirelessKnowledge consortium, in turn, said they would have a product ready for GTE subscribers in 26 cities by this fall.
The introduction of the service marks a critical step in the development of the nascent U.S. market, analysts said.
"The floodgates have just been blown open by plastic explosives," said Ray Jodoin, a wireless analyst with Cahners In-Stat Group. "No one has seen water come down the channel yet. But when it does, watch out."
GTE's announcement marks the first tangible move from the WirelessKnowledge coalition, which includes Microsoft, Qualcomm, and a long list of other cellphone providers. This coalition is important to breaking into the corporate market, where internal network security is a critical concern, said Andy Seybold, editor-in-chief of the wireless data-focused Outlook newsletter.
AirTouch's service is not a WirelessKnowledge offering, although the company is part of the coalition and will have future services that will fall under the group's umbrella.
The new services will allow wireless telephones to be easily connected to an ordinary laptop computer to access the Internet while on the road. The GTE system also utilizes the small screens on cellphones to download email or other small text messages.
The data transfer speeds of this wireless technology are slow, limited to about 14.4 kilobits per second (kbps), or about a quarter of the speed of a standard dial-up modem. But industry supporters say this is sufficient to allow off-site employees to upload files or send email in critical situations.
Wireless data connections aren't foreign to the United States. Metricom's Ricochet modem, for example, provides connections speeds of up to 28.8 kbps. The service areas supported by the modem are scattered, however, and analysts say the product hasn't caught on well in the marketplace.
Some cellphones already support data services, but they are slow and haven't been marketed heavily. Pacific Bell and New York's Omnipoint, both of which operate on the same technical standard as most European systems, are capable of offering data connections at slightly slower speeds than AirTouch's or GTE's products.
According to market research firm Dataquest, the United States had about 1.4 million wireless data subscribers in 1998. This is expected to double by the end of the year, but explode to nearly 36 million subscribers by 2003, giving the market more than $3 billion in revenue.
The AirTouch and GTE offerings are the first of many similar services that will connect laptops and cellphones soon, analysts say. Sprint is in trials with a similar service, and other Wireless Knowledge partners will have their own offerings ready for market before long.
"I think we're going to see a lot of it come out a month at a time over the next six to nine months," Seybold said.