You think your phone is smart? Just wait
By DAVID LIEBERMAN
LAS VEGAS — Wireless phone providers are about to broaden the reach of their broadband services and give them a big bump in speed as they salivate over opportunities to connect everything from multimedia smartphones to dog collars.
"You'll see new categories of (mobile Internet) entertainment and multimedia devices that aren't (conventional) phones," Sprint Nextel CEO Dan Hesse said at the CTIA Wireless convention here. "It will change the way we think of wireless."
The industry is hungry for opportunities: Now that just about anyone who wants a cell phone has one, wireless service providers are "facing very difficult times due to slowing growth," says Dan Hays, director of telecom at management consulting firm PRTM. "That's putting a pressure on profits."
But executives are on a high after watching consumers spend $41 billion last year on wireless Internet, up 28 percent from 2008. To keep that going, this week many of the industry's giants announced plans for next-generation networks or phones.
Although they're using several different technologies, nearly all of the upgrades are being marketed as fourth-generation, or 4G, improvements:
• Verizon and smaller rival MetroPCS are boosting their networks with a technology called Long Term Evolution, or LTE, that may increase data speeds by up to 10 times their current rate.
• Sprint plans to introduce its first 4G phone, by handset-maker HTC, this summer. The phone will run on a wireless technology called WiMax, which shares its roots with Wi-Fi.
• T-Mobile is rolling out High Speed Packet Access Plus (HSPA+), a technology that will allow consumers to wirelessly download a movie in 17 minutes, the company says.
AT&T had previously announced its strategy. It will focus on its existing 3G network for now and will start building out LTE next year.
Phone carriers and manufacturers are trotting out state-of-the-art devices designed to take advantage of those network investments. Sprint's new offering — the HTC EVO — is powerful enough to send high-definition video to an HDTV, Sprint says. It also has an 8-megapixel camera.
The phone "could help Sprint slow, and even stop, its subscriber losses," says Mike Roberts, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media. Although he calls the phone a "milestone," he adds that it will "only really come into its own when it has a variety of applications that take advantage of the faster speeds of 4G, and that will take time."
Meanwhile, T-Mobile said that it is about to have a fleet of smartphones that will use its upgraded transmission technology, which the company says will be the industry's fastest.
"We came a little late to the dance, but we very rapidly are catching up," says Neville Ray, T-Mobile's senior vice president for engineering and operations.
Carriers say that they may see even bigger opportunities to sell wireless Internet services to hospitals, colleges and government agencies.
They're also eagerly looking for wireless applications that could transform everyday life.
For example, AT&T will provide wireless connections for pet collars that let people locate their animals when they stray. Other monitors offer a similar service to track cargo shipments.
And the company's wireless network will connect with a new kind of cap for pill containers: They can flash a light or make a sound to remind people when they forget to take their medication.
They also can wirelessly let doctors know whether patients are keeping up.