Wireless technology company WBS soft-launched its high-speed internet services in Sandton City this week, ahead of its official launch early next year. Prospective users were shown the potential coverage map and asked to leave their address and e-mail address. They were then promised that someone would visit them to check coverage before starting the service. Initial users report an impressively fast service but that coverage was very variable. We were shown the service by a user in the Sandton Centre and what started fast was soon moving slowly.

WBS runs the communications technology behind SA's Lotto system. But it is taking no gambles in its new business of broadband connectivity for the public. It is competing directly with Sentech, the state-owned signal carrier that is also rolling out broadband wireless services. When Sentech launched its offering, technical snags quickly saw it berated for patchy coverage at slower-than-expected speeds.

WBS, however, has spent R100m setting up base stations to cover entire suburbs with a wireless blanket. About 500 users are testing its high-speed access for laptops and a desktop version that could see users scrap their fixed-line phones. It would set up more base stations for a launch in the first quarter of 2005, and would invest another R400m in the next three years, said chief operating officer Thami Mtshali.

The WBS service will cost R699 a month with a 24-month contract, including the laptop and desktop connectivity sets. Users not wanting a contract can buy an iBurst laptop card for R2100 or the desktop version for R2800, and pay R599 a month for unlimited access.