I was invited to participate on the fourth Handango Partner Summit, in San Diego, California. Very exciting stuff, since it's an event bringing together developers of mobile software, operators, industry leaders and experts in the mobile area.
I contacted AT&T Wireless before my trip to arrange for a Sony Ericsson GC82 card and test account, so I could experience first hand the EDGE service offered by this operator, while in the USA.
As promissed by AT&T Wireless the GC82 PC card was waiting for me in the hotel when I arrived there, including a SIM card for my tests.
EDGE is an evolution of GPRS, and improves speed by increasing the data transmission by using a method called Eight Phase Shift Keying (8PSK). It also provides link adaptation, meaning that connections can speed up or slow down depending on the radio conditions. Overall you can expect EDGE to be up to three times faster than current GPRS connections.
The box contains the PC Manager 2.1 software on CD, the GC82 PC card, a detachable antenna and an aluminium case. When not in use the GC82 fits nicely inside this case, with some space for the detachable antenna on the side.
The software supplied runs on Windows based systems (Windows 2000, Windows XP (Pro and Home), Windows 98 and Windows Me). The software gives access to the Connection Manager, the Optimization Manager and Office Offline. There's an option to download updates, and I did so after installing the software and connecting to the EDGE network. The update was really fast, with a few files to download. After a couple of minutes I had the software updated to PC Manager 3.0.
The card itself is not different from many other PC cards in the market. Installation requires only the card to be inserted into the PCMCIA slot, and we're ready to use it. I was really impressed with the fact that the card was able to get a signal (25%) from a location in San Diego where my Vodafone MCC (GPRS) was getting no signal at all.
The card works on 850/1900MHz bands, which are the ones used in North America. The 850MHz band is quite recent, with the 1900MHz being used on their older cell sites. This means that it can be used in the USA and Canada, and a couple of countries in South America (if GPRS Roaming is available). Most of European and Asia Pacific operators use the 900/1800 MHz bands, and this card will not work, even if roaming on these GPRS networks is available. It seems most operators in Europe and Asia Pacific are going from GPRS directly to UMTS. It would be good if the card supported the other bands, though, and then it could be used on GPRS mode while roaming abroad. It is an EDGE Class 8 device (4x2 time slots).
AT&T Wireless says speeds of 100-130kbps can be achieved, with bursts of up to 200kbps. Of course it depends on where you're located. For example, signal strength in the hotel I was staying was poor, but even so I manage to connect. In this case speeds were around 40kbps. Sometimes the connection would drop, and I noticed it was during busy hours (between 6pm and 8pm). It is still impressive, since my GPRS card, roaming on the same network, wouldn't connect at all.
When I went into downtown San Diego for some shopping and coffee I got some good speeds, around 90-100kbps. But the card and network combo showed its potential during my (long) wait in the Los Angeles airport. To test download times while there I tried download a 1.3 MBytes file via FTP a few times and the average speed was 135kbps, with download times between 70 and 80 seconds. Very nice . Browsing websites and receiving e-mails seemed very fast, with no problems, even between 6pm and 7pm.
Almost 100% signal while on LAX
Connection may be refused when used in poor signal areas
I didn't have problems with latency, which is a big deal on GPRS networks. I noticed that it may slow down a little if you have multiple copies of your web browser open and loading different pages. It's natural, since each copy will open up to eight connections to a server, and the overall network will be slower. This will happen even on a landline or slow (256kbps) cable connection anyway.
The software allows for roaming without a problem, and a couple of times I noticed that I couldn't get a fix on AT&T Wireless network, but a weak signal was coming from another one. In this case I managed to connect without a problem. The roaming is indicated by a [R] symbol in the Connection Manager. You should check if you want to connect when roaming, because roaming may not be included in your data plan or may be priced differently.
Note the [R]oaming indicator
The software supplied includes the Optimization Manager. This software interacts with a server to reduce traffic - and time waiting. For example you may want to make images smaller by reducing image quality, block animations or audio/video. This is useful when using a mobile network, because of bandwidth availability. In my case I rather have a faster page download than having to wait for some animation to complete. The Optimization Manager allows the user to control what will be blocked, and what image quality is needed.
Controlling image quality versus speed
Controlling what to download
AT&T Wireless says the EDGE service is available in 6,500 cities and towns, and in areas along some 30,000 miles of interstate highways across the United States.
Current prices as I write this are US$250 for the GC82, but there's a 100% rebate - you can get the card for free! Data plans include free roaming while in the United States, and start from low cost for a limited number of MBytes (US$29.99 x 10MBytes). If using EDGE, and based on the speeds I was able to achieve, I think the US$79.99 plan with unlimited data seems to be reasonable. I found on their web site that a Nokia EDGE mobile phone is available. If you don't have a laptop, but wants to use a high speed mobile network with a handheld, this phone can be used instead of the card.
As a last note, I believe this is not supposed to be your primary Internet connection, but your travel tool. As such it performs really well, and if you're looking for a fast mobile solution before 3G arrives, I recommend you take a serious look at this .