On Friday morning, I gave 3G wireless another chance. Maybe it was looking a gift horse in the mouth. Faster is better, and we should be...

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On Friday morning, I gave 3G wireless another chance.

Maybe it was looking a gift horse in the mouth. Faster is better, and we should be grateful companies are continuing to invest in the networks we all rely upon.

But after all the hype and anticipation, third-generation wireless infrastructure has been underwhelming, in my experience. It limits the potential of devices such as the iPhone and the G1 that Google and T-Mobile USA are releasing Wednesday.

Voice coverage is fine. But nearly every time I show someone the G1’s advanced features, I end up apologizing for its slow Web access.

If you’re mulling one of these new devices, think hard about whether it’s worth paying $300, $500 or more per year for mandatory 3G data plans. They promise the mobile Web, but their browsers still work best indoors, in places with Wi-Fi access.

Friday morning, I wanted to know when a Metro bus would arrive. I was near Google’s Fremont office, where the G1 I’m testing showed maximum wireless signal, including 3G.

As the Fremont Bridge clanged open, I did a Google search for metrokc bus tracker. The bridge went up, a boat passed and the bridge went down before results appeared.

A progress indicator was still rotating when the bus arrived a few minutes later. It was still spinning halfway down Lake Union when the G1 switched to a slower Edge network. Then the search failed.

When 3G reappeared in South Lake Union, I tried again but still had no results by the time I arrived at work.

Wireless companies have spent billions upgrading their networks to 3G technology over the past five years or so. They’re hoping to recoup that by selling data services to people with devices such as the G1, iPhone and, increasingly, laptops, cars and handheld computers.

Expect to hear more about advanced networks in the coming year. Both presidential candidates are talking about subsidizing broadband infrastructure, alternatives such as WiMax are emerging, and a wave of mobile Internet devices is coming to market.

Meanwhile, South Korea and Japan are moving to 4G networks promising true mobile broadband, which may reach the U.S. about 2012.

The potential is exciting, but people used to broadband at home and work may be frustrated by how slow content-rich Web sites load over today’s 3G networks.

AT&T Emerging Devices President Glenn Lurie, who led the company’s iPhone negotiations, said its network is “operating at speeds that allow us to do all the things we’re talking about.” It’s also designed to get faster with software upgrades.

Lurie said AT&T now offers 1.7 megabits per second but will evolve toward 20 mbps starting in 2009. That will likely lead to new rates, however, and some devices such as the 3G iPhone may not get the faster service, he said.

A similar evolution happened after cellphones debuted 25 years ago, noted In-Stat analyst Allen Nogee: Early users paid a premium for limited service but eventually coverage improved and prices fell.

The key is to be realistic about what to expect from 3G.

“It’s going to take years before people have the data coverage that they get right now with voice coverage, where it basically works most places. That’s just a fact of life,” Nogee said. “They advertise these things and promote them as ‘Internet everywhere’ and it’s just really not true.”

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.