Staying Connected on the Road with Cellular Modems

By Brien M. Posey | Nov 22, 2000 | Print this Page
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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.

Surfing Made Easier

Fortunately, there's a way of getting around all of these difficulties (except the slow speed). Sprint PCS sells a Wireless Web Connection Kit for many Internet-enabled phones. This kit includes a set of cables that connect your phone to your laptop's serial port. This connection lets you use a real keyboard and a full-featured browser to surf the Web. However, even this isn't as easy as it sounds.

After purchasing the kit for about $100, I realized that many of the newer notebooks don't have a serial port. I got around this limitation by buying an adapter that converts a USB port into a serial port. You can see the entire setup in Figure 2.

Figure 2
Figure 2: You can use the Wireless Web Connection Kit to hook your cellular phone to your laptop.

Windows 2000 Difficulties

The adapter took care of the physical connection, but there was still one more problem. When I tried to install the driver for the cellular modem, I discovered that it didn't support Windows 2000. I'm using a Qualcomm phone; some other brands may include Windows 2000 drivers. I called Qualcomm and asked about the drivers, and was told that they have no plans to offer future support for Windows 2000.

Because the Setup program was supposed to run under Windows 98 and Windows NT, I assumed that the driver would probably work under Windows 2000 and that the Setup program itself was probably the problem. I managed to manually install the driver, but then I made an interesting discovery: The phone doesn't actually include a modem. When the phone tries to access the Web, it dials a special access number. This access number connects to a modem at the phone company's building. This modem then makes the connection to the Web and relays the information back and forth. To make a long story short, because of the special nature of the cellular modem, I was unable to use it under Windows 2000 even though I installed the driver. I had to set up a dual-boot environment and use Windows 98 whenever I wanted to use a cellular data connection.

CrossLinks

Conclusion

In spite of all the problems I had initially, I still think this type of modem is the best choice when it comes to wireless Internet, simply because you can use a standard Web browser on your laptop with it. The price is right, too. Although the rates change frequently, I was able to get Wireless Web service for about $10.00 per month. Of course, this is in addition to my regular phone bill. Under this arrangement, Wireless Web minutes don't cost any more than standard voice minutes. //

Brien M. Posey is an MCSE who works as a freelance writer. His past experience includes working as the director of information systems for a national chain of health care facilities and as a network engineer for the Department of Defense. Because of the extremely high volume of e-mail that Brien receives, it's impossible for him to respond to every message, although he does read them all.