RealTime IT News

3G and Me

When it comes to new technology, my professional curiosity and New England pragmatism often clash. It's as if Robert Metcalfe and Robert Frost are debating the virtues of cutting-edge versus simplicity in my head.

The poet wins his share. I bought a DVD player only after my VHS gave out; I downgraded cable following one-too-many rate hikes. And I've yet to buy a new PDA since the last one conspired with my laptop to erase two years of data.

Likewise, my no-frills mobile phone has served me well. So I covered recent announcements from Verizon and Cingular with interest and a little skepticism.

U.S. carriers have been touting 3G for years and finally invested billions to upgrade networks to bring data, voice and video to handsets at speeds roughly equivalent to a home DSL or cable connection. 3G is already common in Asia, especially South Korea, where government subsidies have pushed adoption rates higher than Snoop Dogg at a High Times photo shoot.

I asked Verizon for a peek at its VCast video service, which runs over its 3G network and launches here in Boston and 30 other markets Feb. 1. The company sent a shiny new LG VX8000 phone that I've toted for a week.

On the MBTA's Red Line, where subway cars inexplicably jerk to stops several times between stations, 1-to-3-minute video news clips from CNN, NBC and CBS Marketwatch helped keep my blood pressure below stroke level. Fellow commuters peered over my shoulder enviously.

LG VX8000
The LG VX8000 is about to make a splash in the 3G market. Source: LG

I also brought the phone to a meeting of the Massachusetts Telecom Council last week. While speakers trumpeted convergence and connectivity as the future of the industry, I felt I had it in my hands. And during last week's blizzard, I used the camera to zip shots (it also takes video) of 6-foot snow drifts to my brother in the tropics.

I'm not a game enthusiast, but I downloaded a handful of applications via VCast (at about $2.50 a pop), including "FOX Batter Up," "Top Gun 2" and "Call of Duty," which I found myself needing to play at work yesterday -- in the name of thoroughness.

VCast isn't perfect. Some video clip downloads are slow to buffer, but then play without skips or drops and the resolution on the LG screen is crisp. Web sites that aren't coded to fit the small screen, or have elements that can't be read by the phone's browser, tend to be more trouble than they're worth.

In addition, navigation can be tricky, despite a custom interface. With so many features packed onto a phone and only a keypad for commands, I accidentally closed programs and had to restart. And like most cell phone service, tunnels are black spots.

But VCast, and I suspect upcoming offerings from Cingular, Sprint, EarthLink and others, will only improve. Verizon has been smart about pricing. Phones cost about $200 - the high end of a regular phone -- and the service is a flat $15 per month.

The service is for consumers, not executives who gravitate toward smartphones like the Treo, hence the emphasis on content over business applications. The LG phone does have a basic calendar application and links to Web e-mail from AOL, Hotmail and Yahoo.

Would I pay an extra $15 for Verizon VCast? Probably not yet, but I find myself listening to the Robert Metcalfe side of my brain more than usual.

Colin C. Haley is a managing editor of internetnews.com