Staying Connected on the Road with Cellular Modems

On the road? In spite of significant limitations, a standard cellular phone may be your best choice for a wireless Internet connection.

By Brien M. Posey | Posted Nov 22, 2000
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In my last job, I was constantly traveling to medical facilities located in the middle of nowhere. Most of these facilities didn't have Internet connections. Needless to say, this made it very difficult to perform simple repairs on PCs, because I couldn't download drivers from the Internet. At first, I thought that I would be smart and bring my laptop with me. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that most of these hospitals had digital phone lines that were incompatible with an analog modem. The few facilities that had analog phone lines usually blocked long-distance calls, thereby making it impossible to dial into my ISP.

This inconvenience got me thinking about the possibility of using a cellular modem. At first, I didn't take this idea too seriously, because my cell phone wouldn't even work at many of these locations. But then, last year I was in a hotel room in Las Vegas. I needed to connect to the Internet, so I plugged in my laptop and made a 45-minute call to my ISP. When I checked out the next day, I received a $90.00 bill for the call! That's when I decided that I needed to take a better look at cellular modems.

If you travel frequently, you too may benefit from using a cellular modem. However, before you get too excited, there are some things you should know. Cellular data communications are still in their infancy, and they don't work quite as well as you might hope. Don't get me wronga cellular modem will usually get the job done in a pinch, but you probably don't want to use it as your primary means of communications.

Types of Cellular Modems

Two types of cellular modems are on the market today. One type is limited to working with data only; it's incapable of handling voice calls. Such wireless modems are usually advertised with mobile devices such as the Palm Pilot, but I have seen them advertised for use with PCs. The downside to this type of device is that it requires a subscription fee that's totally separate from whatever cellular service provider you're using. This subscription fee may only include Internet and e-mail access. Many of these devices are incapable of dialing into remote access servers. The other problem is that depending on the service provider, many of these modems only work in about a dozen of the largest cities.

However, if you live in an area where service is available, these modems can offer extremely fast communications. I recently received a press announcement indicating that a company called Metricom will unveil a wireless modem called Ricochet at the Fall 2000 COMDEX. This wireless modem is capable of surfing the Internet at 128 Kbps. Unfortunately, as of right now the service is only available in 11 cities, although the company is planning to expand the service next year.

The other type of cellular modem uses a standard cellular phone for communications. This is the type I use. Sprint PCS offers a feature called Wireless Web that allows you to browse the Internet through your cellular phone. Don't be fooled by this claim, thoughonly a very limited number of Web sites are accessible directly through the phone. This is the case because the Web sites must be specially designed to take advantage of the limited capabilities of the phone's browser.

The other problem with this type of modem is that it's difficult to use the built-in browser. As you can see in Figure 1, the phone can only display a few lines of text, which makes surfing the Web difficult at best. It's also a very tedious process to send an e-mail message or enter a URL, because of the lack of a keyboard. Instead, you must use the phone buttons in place of a true keyboard. For example, if you want to enter the letter C, you have to press the 2 button three times and then wait for the cursor to move to the next space. When you combine the difficulty of using the browser with the fact that you're limited to a speed of around 14,400 bps, you can see that accessing the Web through your phone can be a frustrating experience.

Figure 1
Figure 1: It's very difficult to surf the Web directly through the phone.

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