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Sprint, T-Mobile bring higher speeds to Hub

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / September 1, 2010

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Greater Boston’s airwaves have become a broadband battleground, as two wireless carriers launch new, high-speed data services today designed to leave current 3G cellular services in the dust.

Sprint Nextel Corp., the number three US cellular carrier, unveiled its 4G service, promising Internet download speeds that are two to three times as fast as standard 3G service. Meanwhile, rival T-Mobile USA Inc., the fourth-largest US cellular carrier, announced an upgrade to its Boston-area 3G network. T-Mobile claimed its improved technology, called HSPA+, can match or beat Sprint’s 4G network performance.

A typical 3G connection can download about 1.5 million bits of data per second. Sprint’s 4G network offers speeds up to 6 million bits per second, with short bursts as high as 10 megabits.

The 4G network was built by Clearwire Corp. of Kirkland, Wash. Sprint owns 54 percent of Clearwire; other major investors include cable TV company Comcast Corp., chip maker Intel Corp., and Internet search company Google Inc.

Clearwire will sell 4G service in Boston under the brand name Clear. It will market portable wireless hot spot devices to allow subscribers to connect laptop computers and other devices to the 4G network, as well as wireless home modems that will provide an alternative to broadband services from cable TV or telephone companies.

Comcast will also sell access to the Clearwire network, and will offer a bundle that combines its home cable Internet service with a portable 4G modem for use while traveling. Comcast said its existing broadband customers could get 4G access for an additional $40 per month.

Sprint 4G will be accessible in communities throughout the Boston metropolitan area and is also launching today in Providence.

Chris Hillanbrant, T-Mobile’s regional vice president for engineering and operations, said his company’s upgraded 3G technology would be as fast or faster than Sprint 4G service, although he declined to say just how fast it would be. But Hillanbrant noted that T-Mobile will charge the same rate for the improved service as it charges for standard 3G service. Sprint charges an extra $10 a month to 4G users.

T-Mobile presently does not offer phones that are compatible with the new 3G standard; the first, the T-Mobile G2, is being developed, but the company has not said when it will go on sale. Meanwhile, T-Mobile sells USB modems that let laptop owners use its upgraded network on their computers.

Allen Nogee, wireless industry analyst with In-Stat LLC in Scottsdale, Ariz., said the T-Mobile service would indeed be fast enough to compete with Sprint’s 4G offering.

“I think most people are going to see equivalent rates most of the time,’’ Nogee said. But he pointed out that Sprint’s network has much greater data-carrying capacity. “It’s like having more lanes on the highway,’’ Nogee said, adding that would let Sprint make future upgrades that would put its 4G network far ahead of T-Mobile’s HSPA+ technology.

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