As cell phone companies rush to catch the next wave of mobile technology, Verizon Wireless this week will launch a super-fast wireless data service that allows laptop users to connect to the Internet at speeds comparable to those offered by cable modems or digital subscriber lines.
But competitors are close behind, and they will be scrutinizing Verizon Wireless' performance in the Washington area and San Diego, where the service, called Broadband Access, will be introduced.
Verizon Wireless, the largest wireless company in the United States, is hedging its bets. Executives said they would monitor sales of Broadband Access for three to six months before deciding whether to push into other markets.
In the Washington region, Verizon Wireless will offer the service in the District of Columbia and parts of Montgomery County and Northern Virginia. By the end of the year, Broadband Access will be available at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and in Annapolis.
"We hope to offer it to Baltimore at some point," John H. Johnson, a Verizon Wireless spokesman, said yesterday. "But we're going to monitor its success in the Washington area first."
In California, Verizon Wireless Southern California President Marni Walden said she expected strong demand and figured that being first to market would help propel expansion into the Los Angeles area, the logical next stop.
The new feature also will later become part of the bundle of options offered by New York-based Verizon Communications Inc., which operates the wireless unit as a joint venture with Vodafone Group of Britain.
Analysts praised the service but noted that other carriers could catch up quickly and wondered how fast Verizon Wireless could expand.
"In this high-technology game, I might have a leg up on you today, but you could have a leg up on me tomorrow," said Forrester Research Inc. analyst Lisa Pierce.
"Our goal is to move very quickly to expand the coverage," Walden said.
"Wireless data service is a work in progress," said Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst in Atlanta. "This is a leap in speed, but it's only available in two markets."
Verizon Wireless will charge $79.99 a month for unlimited use of Broadband Access, which Kagan called a "good price." Competition probably will lower the price, but the company also will develop two other pricing plans - one that combines voice minutes with broadband use and another that charges by the megabytes used.
Broadband Access and similar products eventually could put a dent in the growing popularity of wireless fidelity, or WiFi, service, which provides high-speed wireless connections within 150 feet or so of high-traffic areas such as airport rest areas and coffee shops.
"WiFi can certainly be an asset," Walden said.
"But Broadband Access will give you the benefits of both: You can stay put or travel with it."
Analyst Kagan says everything wireless is up for grabs, noting: "WiFi can co-exist in the marketplace if it still can offer higher speeds."
Broadband Access also ups the ante between two competing technologies. Verizon Wireless and Sprint Corp. rely on upgrades of code division multiple access, or CDMA, technology developed by Qualcomm Inc. of San Diego.
However, other carriers in the United States and most of the world use GSM, or global system for mobile communications.
The latest CDMA technology products give Broadband Access speeds averaging at least twice those offered by current CDMA and GSM technology, plus bursts of speed that would make it faster than cable modem or DSL.
Cingular Wireless and AT&T Wireless Inc., the second- and third-largest cell phone companies in the United States, said they were on track to offer such speeds - faster than dial-up but slower than cable or DSL - by the end of the year or early next year.
While Verizon Wireless will be pushing to get beyond two markets, AT&T Wireless spokesman Ritch Blasi said, "ours will be national, and the devices you can use can still get you data in 40 countries, though at dial-up speeds."
Sun staff writer Dan Thanh Dang contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.