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Apple Adds Significant Cell Data Support

Apple’s WWAN (Wireless Wide Area Network) Support Update v1.0, released last week via Software Update, adds support for five cellular data modems from Novatel, which are variously offered by three U.S. cellular operators. The update provides support for four ExpressCard modems that work with the MacBook Pro and one USB modem that can work with any Intel-based Mac. Mac OS X 10.4.8 or later on an Intel-based Mac is required.

Third-generation (3G) cellular data networks provide moderate data speeds across entire cities and regions. Those speeds are currently ramping up as Cingular Wireless (soon to be rebranded as part of AT&T), Sprint Nextel, and Verizon Wireless upgrade their networks to faster standards.

Previous Approaches — Before this release, Mac OS X users typically needed to rely on third-party software, unsupported hacks (that nonetheless work), or Verizon Wireless, the only U.S. carrier to offer official Mac software for registering and managing a wireless PC Card. This Intel-only update leaves users of PowerPC-based Macs relying on the existing approaches as faster cell data flavors hit the market.

It’s unclear whether Apple’s new support allows Mac users to register their cell modems on a provider’s network. This registration typically requires special Windows software on networks other than Verizon Wireless’s.

Data Rates — Cingular’s HSDPA (High-Speed Download Packet Access), a worldwide standard, is currently available in scattered cities around the United States, but the recent AT&T-BellSouth merger should accelerate that deployment. HSDPA has a top download rate of 3.6 Mbps in the current version, and 7.2 Mbps in a new version that’s starting to appear. Actual rates seen by individual users are always a bit vague: the current 3.6 Mbps generation seems to deliver up to 150 Kbps upstream and 700 Kbps downstream in typical circumstances, but can both burst far above that and drop far below. Cingular advertises 400 to 700 Kbps downstream. The 7.2 Mbps version of HSDPA could double that throughput, but is more
likely to support more users in each cell tower’s range instead, leading to a more modest increase in throughput. The Novatel Merlin XU870 ExpressCard, offered by Cingular and supported in this Apple update, supports both HSDPA speeds, as well as older, slower standards.

Sprint and Verizon Wireless use CDMA for their networks, a cellular standard used mostly in the United States and South Korea; their flavor of 3G is called EVDO (Evolution Data-Only). The first version, numbered Rev. 0, offered rates comparable to HSDPA. The next version, called EVDO Rev. A, is just starting to be installed, with Sprint and Verizon Wireless committing to a massive buildout through 2007. Rev. A adapters can operate at Rev. 0 speeds as well as use the earlier modem-speed 1xRTT standard. Rev. A offers typical downstream rates of up to 800 Kbps, with bursts of a few megabits per second, and improves upstream transfers to a rate of up to 400 Kbps. The WWAN Support Update v1.0 supports a single Rev.0 EVDO ExpressCard – the
Novatel XV620 on the Verizon Wireless network – while the other two ExpressCards and the USB adapter offer Rev. A.

Costs — All three companies typically charge about $60 per month for unmetered service with a two-year commitment and a high cancellation penalty. Cingular and Verizon Wireless require a voice plan to get into the $60 range, with costs around $80 per month otherwise. The cards and USB modems are typically subsidized by the carriers when you make a plan commitment; prices vary by location and term of agreement, but typically cost between $50 and $150 with the longest commitment.

“Unmetered service” doesn’t mean “unlimited,” although all three firms typically advertise it as unlimited. You can read a lengthy essay by Tim Wu, a professor at the Columbia University law school, about how “unlimited” means “whatever we define it as” in the hands of cellular operators. For Verizon Wireless, it means less than 200 MB transferred per day for email, Web surfing, and corporate applications – hardly broadband!

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