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Hub to get early look at next-level Web link

To test high-speed 4G cellular network

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / August 13, 2009

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Before the year is out, Boston residents will have a new way to get high-speed Internet service: with their cellphones.

Verizon Wireless has selected Boston and Seattle as the first two US cities to test its new wireless data service, with speeds five to 10 times faster than the service used today by such popular handsets as Apple Inc.’s iPhone.

The new network could mean big changes in the ways people use their smartphones or laptop computers, at home and on the road. Today’s networks, known as 3G, are good enough for checking e-mail or visiting websites, but they’re too slow for high-quality video or real-time video gaming. They can’t match the speed of the hard-wired Internet services offered by telephone and cable TV companies.

Verizon Wireless’s new network, called 4G, will have the ability to display crystal-clear videos and allow users to play complex multiplayer games, or hold two-way videoconferences. Consumers might replace broadband Internet services from cable and phone companies with the new wireless service, in the same way some have ditched their traditional, hard-wired telephone lines in favor of cellphones.

Verizon Wireless will not say what it plans to charge for the new service, or reveal the speeds it will provide consumers. News of 4G’s debut cities came in a Verizon Wireless conference call for investors on July 27, and the company said it is not yet ready to speak publicly about it.

But Godfrey Chua, research analyst at IDC Corp. in Framingham, said it would almost certainly deliver enough speed to offer serious competition to traditional Internet services. “If you have cable modem at home, it gets us up to that level,’’ Chua said.

Cable TV and Internet giant Comcast Corp. said it does not believe that 4G poses much of a threat. Spokeswoman Mary Nell Westbrook noted that the nation’s first 4G service, offered in several cities by Clearwire Corp. of Kirkland, Wash., can’t measure up to Comcast’s higher-speed Internet products. “Our services are so much faster than that today,’’ Westbrook said.

Verizon Wireless will use a technology called Long-Term Evolution, or LTE, to build its new 4G network. Some carriers are adopting a separate system called WiMax.

“The hope with LTE and WiMax is at some point, they could start displacing your DSL and cable providers,’’ said Allen Nogee, an analyst at In-Stat, a technology research firm in Scottsdale, Ariz.

A report issued in February by the company’s chief technology officer, Dick Lynch, said Verizon Wireless’s LTE system has been tested at speeds almost 60 times faster than the company’s current 3G network.

The Boston and Seattle deployments are just the beginning, according to Verizon Wireless president Denny Strigl, who said in the conference call that the company intends to launch the new services in up to 30 markets next year, making the service available to as many as 100 million potential subscribers.

The new 4G networks will be a boon for consumer electronics makers, because today’s cellphones and laptops won’t work with the new technology. Millions of subscribers will need to purchase new phones and plug-in computer adapters to connect to the new networks.

While Verizon Wireless is moving quickly toward 4G, the second-biggest cellphone carrier in the US - AT&T - is taking its time. AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel said that his company won’t even begin testing a 4G service until 2011. Instead, this year it will upgrade its existing 3G network to deliver about seven times the current speed.

“3G is going to be around for a long, long time, even as 4G is deployed,’’ Siegel said.

T-Mobile USA, the fourth-largest cell carrier in the country, is also taking a go-slow approach to 4G. The company hasn’t even finished building its 3G network yet. Like AT&T, T-Mobile will boost its 3G performance through a technology upgrade, though T-Mobile won’t say how much speed it expects from the improved network.

Clearwire, which used the WiMax technology to build its 4G network, has signed up residential consumers in Baltimore, Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Portland, Ore., and charges $20 a month for Internet service at home. For an additional $30 a month, Clearwire subscribers can get a mobile broadband service that lets them connect laptops wirelessly when they’re on the road. Comcast offers hard-wired service at one-sixth of Clearwire’s speed for $25 a month, or a much faster service for $43.

Mike Sievert, Clearwire’s chief commercial officer, said that many users have unplugged their wired Internet providers, and use the Clearwire service as their only broadband source.

That’s not necessarily bad news for Comcast, which is a major investor in Clearwire.

Comcast markets Clearwire’s 4G service as part of a “quad play’’ bundle, along with Comcast telephone, cable Internet, and cable TV service. Another major Clearwire investor is cellular carrier Sprint Nextel Corp., which already sells Clearwire-compatible laptop cards, and plans to introduce a 4G phone sometime between now and 2010.

The lure of wireless broadband service is even attracting smaller players. MetroPCS Communications Inc., the sixth-largest US cellular carrier, serves 5.4 million subscribers in eight states, including Massachusetts. MetroPCS specializes in prepaid cellphone services which have traditionally been favored by low-income users who generally don’t buy wireless data services. But MetroPCS plans to launch a 4G network in the second half of 2010.

“Cellular operators are making less and less on voice,’’ said analyst Nogee. “They’re looking for new revenue streams.’’ But Nogee added that in a year or two, with so many 4G options available, wireless data service could become a lot cheaper for consumers.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.