Novatel Wireless and Sprint launch first EV-DO Rev. A US broadband service

Posted by Scott M. Fulton, III

Overland Park (KS) - The evolution of wireless broadband in North America has been one, to borrow a phrase, of fits and starts. Last March, Novatel Wireless and Sprint announced they'd fit themselves together somehow to give Rev. A of EV-DO service a try on this continent; today, the two announced they're finally ready to start. Sprint will be rolling out EV-DO Rev. A broadband service for its burgeoning line of mobile users, and Novatel Wireless will be providing second-generation Merlin S720 cards for the job.

With this rollout, what's being called the Sprint Power Vision network officially goes live, only a few weeks after the first successful trial of the system outside Novatel Wireless' headquarters in San Diego. Sprint says it hopes to complete its nationwide EV-DO Rev. A rollout by the end of this year. If successful, the move to Rev. A could boost real-world uplink speeds for PC Card users from Rev. 0's current 128 kb/s to as high as 400 kb/s, and downlink speeds from 450 kbps to 850 kbps, according to Sprint. This would finally put mobile broadband on a par with cable, DSL, and at least first-generation wired broadband.

"There's additional features in EV-DO Rev. A that are not available in Rev. 0," Brad Weinert, Novatel Wireless' vice president of business development, told TG Daily in an interview last March, "like Quality of Service, that'll allow the carriers to offer [QoS] plans for things like voice-over-IP." The requirements of a VoIP or streaming media provider are different than those of a Web site or e-mail provider. For the latter category, where transmissions aren't necessarily time-sensitive, servers can make "best effort" attempts to push packets through. But for time-sensitive applications, servers need to know such things as how much effort is too much. For this reason, Rev. A enables QoS and other signaling between server and client, so that the server can gauge what network engineers refer to as "flow."

"Today, if you do voice-over-IP on EV-DO, it's not an issue," said Weinert, "but it can't guarantee a particular quality or speed. Things like voice-over-IP, where latency means everything, being able to guarantee that bandwidth is the key to being able to have a commercial product."

Currently, EV-DO cards sell for between $95 and $150 dollars, when purchased in conjunction with a one- or two-year service contract. Sprint and Verizon Wireless are North America's most prominent EV-DO providers, with Novatel Wireless among those supplying cards for both carriers. (Novatel Wireless of San Diego is not to be confused with network equipment provider NovATel of Calgary, Alberta.) Sprint said today its Rev. A service over the Power Vision network will cost subscribers $79.99 per month for unlimited usage, with a $99.99 fee for the Novatel Wireless Merlin S720 card (regular $249.99) with a two-year service agreement.

Wireless broadband service is the easiest for a Rev. A carrier to start with, because it doesn't necessarily require QoS - VoIP over PCs generally use transport layers at the same level as the Web (layer 4), but VoIP as a phone service to rival CDMA requires layer 3 protocols that transcend everyday Internet service. For this reason, most likely, broadband ISP is the first service Sprint and others will roll out over Rev. A, with trials of voice and push-to-talk service (the trademark service of Sprint division Nextel) to follow thereafter.

Sprint says it has been demonstrating video conferencing, push-to-talk (PTT), high-definition streaming, and even live gaming over EV-DO Rev. A, as a way to build support for its move to upgrade Power Vision completely to Rev. A by Q3 2007. While EV-DO probably will not replace cellular voice service for Sprint or any other carrier, next-generation service could enable Nextel to offer a higher-tier PTT service. Two years ago, Nextel was ordered by the FCC to relinquish its existing 800 MHz PTT spectrum, and in so doing, was cleared by regulators to use portions of the 1.9 MHz spectrum instead, in a move that some lawmakers even today are still raising havoc over. Moving PTT off of the radio spectrum entirely could solve this problem.

Verizon was expected earlier this year to be the first out of the gate with Rev. A cards, so an announcement from that company similar to Sprint's is perhaps not long forthcoming.