Virtually useless

A monthlong test of wireless Web shows the technology has a long, long way to go.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 7, 2000


Honey, they shrunk the Internet. And they made it slower, too.

AT&T's PocketNet service has its moments, such as:

Waits of 15 minutes or more trying to connect to the Internet, ending with "server not responding" messages.

Reading the text from selected Web sites four lines at a time on a tiny screen when connections are successful.

Painstaking, usually unsuccessful, attempts to type e-mail on a phone dialpad.

And this is supposed to be the Internet "for people on the go."

As poorly as the PocketNet handled the Web, the phone side of the gadget was only marginally better, with too many calls breaking up or people just not able to hear the other person on the line. The problems occurred during local and long-distance calls.

A monthlong test of the service got off to a rocky start when the PocketNet Web page was down and I couldn't complete the sign-up on a desktop computer.

AT&T offers two PocketNet phones: a $99.99 Ericsson (the one I tested) and a $199.99 Mitsubishi, which has a screen that shows six lines of text on its display.

Consumers can choose from three plans for Net access: a basic plan with about 40 sites accessible for free; the Plus Plan for $6.99 a month, which adds e-mail and fax services; and the Premium Plan for $15 a month, which gives access to all "wireless application protocol" (WAP) sites, as well as adding functions such as calendar, contact and to-do lists. There are no per-minute fees for Internet connections.

Phone service is extra, and consumers can choose from among the various AT&T wireless plans available.

To get started, people go to the PocketNet Web site, which serves as a home page. Users can create favorite lists for topics such as news, sports and finance, and choose among the available Web sites. (Users also are supposed to be able to type in Web addresses on the phone, but that test failed.)

While AT&T touts the number of sites accessible by the phone, there's no list or link on its page to indicate what's available. For example, the popular MSNBC.com site is not available, though sites such as ABC News, ESPN, Barnes & Noble, eBay, MapQuest and the Weather Channel are.

What I got was basic information from those sites. I could keep up with baseball scores, news headlines and market reports. But when I tried to go beyond the basics, problems occurred. Trying to type even simple ticker symbols for stock market checks failed more than it succeeded.

The problem: To use the dialpad, you push the "2" button once for the letter A, twice for B and three times for C. At least that's the way it's supposed to work. Usually, I would get the first letter entered, but not the second. Or, the second letter I entered would replace the first.

This typing terrorism carried over to e-mail, even though I kept the user's manual next to the phone as I tried to type. One test e-mail from a co-worker asked if my phone gave a signal when a message arrived. I tried to respond, "It beeps" kept producing "It beers." After 10 minutes, I sent it anyway, at least it provided a chuckle.

With these kinds of problems, I didn't venture into shopping by phone or creating lists.

Maybe the icing on the cake came when I checked the fine print on the PocketNet Web site: Coverage maps showed the areas where I tested the service in the Tampa Bay area and Orlando, but the data service has different coverage areas than the voice network: "Therefore, you will not be able to use AT&T Digital PocketNet service in all places where wireless phone service is available."

AT&T's problems are not unique in the wireless Web phone market. The Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe each tried Sprint's service and panned it.

The industry says things will get better in coming years, but that's a no-brainer. The only way to go is up.

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