The Provider: AT&T Wireless

AT&T Wireless (formerly McCaw Cellular Communications) operates one of the largest digital networks in the US. They have been my wireless service provider for 5 years now. Over the years I have tried many different providers, and found AT&T Wireless (who took over Cellular One) to be the best one (or should I say the lesser of all evils that are cellular) as far as service and reliability is concerned.

To get a better understanding of the progress of wireless technology you should know that the original first generation cell phone services ran on analog cellular systems and only supported voice transfer. The second generation (short: 2G) we’ve been experiencing for a few years now in form of GSM and PCS are of better quality, fix a lot of problems of the first generation analog services, offer additional features, but are still primarily geared for voice transmissions. The third generation (or 3G for short) brings significant improvements in form of high bandwidth of up to 2Mbps and sophisticated multimedia devices instead of simple telephones.

The AT&T second generation network offers two services. GSM (Global System for Mobile communications – worldwide digital mobile phone system) for voice transmissions, i.e. regular phone calls, and GPRS (General Packet Radio Services – packet-based data service for mobile networks) for data transmissions, i.e. Internet connectivity.

Their implementation of a GSM (Global System for Mobile communications – worldwide digital mobile phone system) and GPRS (General Packet Radio Services – packet-based data service for mobile networks) network has been coming along somewhat slow compared to other providers, who have been delivering these services for some time. Transferring data over the current GPRS network requires the addition of a data rate plan to the service, it is calculated separate from the voice rate plan. The data transfer rate is metered. Plans usually have a base fee that includes a certain amount of data, with an additional charge for each extra Kilobyte transferred.

In order to use the built-in modem to connect to the Internet, AT&T Wireless requires you to use their GPRS service. Making a regular dial-up connection to a dial-up ISP via the GSM voice system is not possible due to limitations of the AT&T network, forcing users to use the metered, and costly, GPRS system. At least data is metered separately from voice transmissions, and therefore does not affect your airtime minutes.

AT&T Wireless is in the business of selling services to make money. Nobody can blame them for that. While their services are always available for a premium price, I’ve found myself usually willing to pay a little bit more for reliability and service. The initial prices for data transfer over the GPRS network were nothing short of highway robbery, though. As this service and network continues to improve and gather popularity, prices are expected to go down.

Since voice and data plan rates and features are constantly changing, I won’t go into details about the voice and data plan I chose. Suffice it to say that the data rate plan was expensive, making it not suitable for casual random web surfing, unless your name is William Gates. According to AT&T store employees, the data service will significantly improve over the next year, both in speed as well as price. GPRS can theoretically support speeds up to 170 kilobits per second. Farther down the road, AT&T will eventually deploy 3G services capable of moving data at top speeds of up to 2MBPS (megabits per second). However, 3G implementation recently suffered a major setback according to AT&T.

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