Verizon Wireless is flipping the switch today on a new high-speed network that will allow users to watch music videos, download ringtones...

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Verizon Wireless is flipping the switch today on a new high-speed network that will allow users to watch music videos, download ringtones and access the Internet — from their laptop or on a phone — anywhere in the Seattle area.

The technology, called 3G for third-generation wireless technology, has become status quo across Europe and Asia, but adoption has been slow in the United States.

So far, Verizon Wireless is the only carrier to make a significant headway, having launched in 37 cities, including the Seattle and Portland areas today.

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Its 3G service, which transmits data at speeds just shy of DSL service, uses an advanced technology called EV-DO, an outgrowth of Verizon’s underlying CDMA platform. Sprint PCS uses the same technology, while Cingular Wireless uses a high-speed technology called UMTS, part of the pervasive worldwide GSM platform.

Cingular Wireless has UMTS service in six markets, including Seattle, but is not actively selling the service or devices for it. The networks were originally launched by AT&T Wireless before Cingular acquired the Redmond-based company.

Cingular plans to upgrade the cities to a faster technology called HSDPA, and relaunch it later this year here and in 15 to 20 other cities.

Sprint plans to roll out 3G in some markets this summer but has not announced details, saying it is focused on completing its merger with Nextel Communications.

Prospects for 3G in the U.S. are mixed. While it seems natural to implement it, given how it has advanced in the rest of the world, some question whether there are enough applications to prompt customers to pay a premium for the service.

On Verizon Wireless’ network, the most obvious application for the phone is its well-advertised V Cast video service, although typical tasks such as surfing the Internet or sampling and downloading ringtones can be noticeably faster on a 3G-equipped phone.

V Cast offers TV clips of news and regular programming, such as “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

It also has programming developed specifically for the mobile phone, called mobisodes. One series is based on the Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton reality TV show, “The Simple Life.” For 99 cents, you can watch 60 seconds of the two misfiring on their designated tasks.

Other content is available for additional fees.

With the number of applications for phones still limited, it is the PC card version of 3G that the business crowd is adopting, said Roger Entner, vice president of the wireless division of Ovum, a consulting company. The card enables a laptop to connect with the Internet throughout a large geographical area and at what Entner calls “blazingly fast” speed.

The pervasive coverage gives 3G an advantage over the popular Wi-Fi technology. Wi-Fi is accessible within a few hundred feet of an antenna; 3G is like cellphone service — available most anywhere. “No longer are you tethered to a Starbucks or a Kinko’s or to the proverbial coffee shop,” Entner said. “Finally it can work at the beach.”

Still, the limited number of consumer applications has persuaded one major carrier, Bellevue-based T-Mobile USA, to refrain from rolling out 3G until 2007 or 2008, at least two years after competitors. In the meantime, it is focusing on its HotSpot division, which offers Wi-Fi in limited locations.

T-Mobile’s choice highlights another difference between 3G and Wi-Fi: price. T-Mobile USA offers HotSpot subscriptions at 25,000 locations worldwide for $20 to $30 a month. Verizon Wireless offers 3G on a mobile phone for $15 a month, including V Cast, and laptop-connected service costs $79.99 a month.

To use either service, a customer must buy a phone or PC card. Verizon Wireless is offering three 3G phones, from LG, Samsung and Audiovox, ranging from $99 to $149, including mail-in rebates.

There are two PC cards available, one for $49.99 and the other at $69.99 after rebates. Both the phone and card offers require two-year contracts.

Verizon is still expanding the network beyond the current 37 markets. Outside of the service area, the devices use Verizon’s slower 1xRTT network.

In the Puget Sound area, service is available in Bellingham, Everett, Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond, Tacoma and Olympia.

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com