AT&T; Wireless rolled out a new wireless phone service yesterday in the Baltimore-Washington market that offers free, unlimited access to 40 Web sites and other features in a bid to capture a larger share of the exploding market for Internet access via handheld devices.
The Baltimore-Washington area has emerged as one of the leading regions in the country for cellular telephone usage, according to the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC estimates that 20 percent of the region's 3 million to 4 million residents have a cellular telephone account.
AT&T; Wireless was spun out from the telecommunications giant as a separate company three weeks ago in the nation's largest initial public offering. It competes in the region against Cellular One, Sprint and Verizon, which was formed by the merger of the wireless services of Bell Atlantic Mobile and Vodafone AirTouch PLC.
Sprint and Verizon also offer Web enabled phones and Internet access phone plans.
The deal is the latest move in the race by wireless telecommunications providers to "bundle" voice and Internet service plans to the general consumer. Sprint PCS fired the first volley when it recently began offering free Net access via its wireless Web service. Free long-distance or additional night and weekend minutes also are offered to customers who sign up for a Sprint PCS Free & Clear voice package.
Industry analysts say that while the wireless Web browser --- known as a minibrowser - which AT&T;'s new service relies on, is an important leap in wireless technology, more innovation and competition is on the way to make the Web even more accessible by hand-held devices.
Kendra Vandermeulen, senior vice president for product development and strategy for AT&T; Wireless, said the company's new digital PocketNet service hopes to differentiate itself by offering a "truly free, all you can eat Web-access" service.
Verizon charges for its Web access and messaging services. Sprint's plans allow customers to use their monthly minutes for voice or Web access, which includes access to e-mail and personal calendars. Current and new AT&T; customers will have to purchase a new Web enabled wireless phone capable of accessing the PocketNet service and sign up for a digital voice service plan.
But users won't have to use minutes of the telephone plan they sign up for, and they will not be billed for minutes used accessing content providers for the Internet service, said Vandermeulen.
Under the free, or Basic Plan, customers will be able to access 40 news, financial, weather, travel, entertainment and shopping Web sites, and a personal portal Web site for customized information. The sites include popular sites such as eBay and Yahoo!, and lesser known sites such as TeeMaster.com, a golf booking service, and TrafficStation.com, a traffic monitoring service.
The company hopes to make money by enticing users of the free service to upgrade to one of two plans that offer more services, such as access to any Web address, e-mail and faxing services, and a service that will dial a phone number found on the 40 content sites, say, a pizza delivery service. AT&T; Wireless also hopes to see revenue from getting a commission from online shopping sales.
The company's "premium" service will allow users to access a personal calendar, to create lists and other personal digital assistant features, and to download and send that data to a PC. The upgrade plans will charge a monthly fee as high as $14.99.