[Cu-wireless] wireless network headaches (from NY Times):
sascha at ucimc.org
Fri Feb 28 09:22:22 CST 2003
I thought this would be an interesting and educational read given that our
system would pretty much eliminate this problem.
February 27, 2003
Be Your Own Wireless Network
By SARAH MILSTEIN
The allure of an Internet connection anytime, anywhere is powerful. To
satisfy the craving, wireless networks have proliferated in airports,
bookstores and coffee shops. But what if you have online affairs to tend
to on the road, but no access to such a network?
There is some good news. Your laptop can be connected to a wireless phone
that can serve as a modem, or it can be equipped with a wireless modem in
the form of a PC card that fits into an expansion slot.
To use such a wireless setup to go online, you will need a
data-transmission account from a wireless carrier. Connection speeds can
be equivalent to dial-up or broadband, depending on the carrier and the
data service plan. Some data plans allow you to connect while you are
outside the United States.
But the not-so-good news is that the service plans can be expensive and
the hardware and software can be tricky to configure. Moreover, none of
the carriers makes it easy to figure out how to subscribe.
Wireless data service providers tend to give their plans names that are
not easily understood, and finding information about them on the Web can
be difficult. Can they be found under personal or business options?
Wireless or Internet? Is a PC card an accessory or a phone?
Interpreting the descriptions is often harder. Do data plans for
Web-enabled phones apply to laptops? If additional kilobits beyond the
plan cost 0.002 cents apiece, how much is the monthly bill likely to be?
Customer service representatives may be of help. In any case, there are
several important issues to consider.
The first is the service plan. All plans are billed monthly, but some
charge by the minute, some charge by the volume of data transferred, and
some offer unlimited time and volume for a flat fee. Some wireless
carriers sell voice and data packages separately, while others require
subscribers to have voice accounts before data services can be added. Many
charge an activation fee of $35 or so.
In addition, some carriers offer connections at dial-up speed (14.4 to 56
kilobits per second), while others offer broadband speeds (more than 100
kilobits per second), or a choice. Keep in mind that connection speeds are
measured in kilobits or megabits per second, usually expressed with a
lowercase "b," as in Kb or Mb. Data volume is measured in kilobytes or
megabytes, often denoted with an uppercase "B," as in MB or KB.
This could be important if you are considering, say, a monthly plan that
offers 150 minutes of service at dial-up speed. Sending or receiving just
a few large files would consume your minutes. Any additional transmissions
in that month would be at a more expensive rate.
On the other hand, a plan that bills by data volume could reach its limit
on spam alone. I ordinarily receive several hundred kilobytes' worth of
spam every day. If I chose a low-volume plan, I could wind up paying big
fees. Volume plans of less than 10 megabytes per month are probably
suitable only for use with Web- enabled phones and palmtop devices rather
than with laptops.
If you are considering a volume-based plan, you should estimate how much
data you will be transmitting monthly. Charts at Web sites including
/express_network/exp_terms.html and www.attws.com/mmode/plans
/data.jhtml describe typical file sizes. Some carriers, however, build
file-compression utilities into their software, effectively shrinking
files and speeding transmission times.
Feeling befuddled? Brace yourself. The actual plans are even harder to
follow than the theory. Verizon Wireless, for example, has two data
networks, Quick 2 Net, which connects at 14.4 kilobits per second, and
Express Network, which allows connections at up to 144 kilobits per
second. Quick 2 Net is offered as part of the regular wireless voice
But Express Network service can take three different forms. You can buy it
in combined voice-and-data airtime plans that range from $35 for 150
minutes to $300 for 3,000 minutes per month. Verizon Wireless also offers
a monthly volume plan of 10 megabytes for $35 and 40 megabytes for $75. Or
you can buy unlimited data-only airtime minutes for $99.99 per month.
Other carriers have similarly complex offerings.
If you want to use the connection internationally, look for carriers that
use a GSM network, including AT&T Wireless, Cingular and T-Mobile. Not all
countries that allow GSM voice calls also allow data calls, so if you need
to connect in a particular country, be sure to ask whether the data
network is accessible there.
Next, you will need the hardware - either a PC card or a wireless phone
designed to work as modem - and the carrier's software. In both cases,
Windows-only devices and programs are common, so if you own a laptop
running another operating system, be sure to check compatibility.
If you already own a wireless phone, ask the carrier you select whether it
can work with their data service. If not, you will need a new data-enabled
phone. Models start at $50 or so.
Along with the phone, you will need a U.S.B. or serial cable to connect it
to your laptop. (Some laptops do not have serial ports, so check before
buying a cable.) Many carriers offer connection kits for $60 to $90 that
include software and a cable. If your carrier does not sell a kit for your
phone, you may be able to buy a cable from the manufacturer and software
from the carrier.
A PC modem card offers a more compact wireless setup and leaves your phone
free while you're online, but they are expensive. Carriers sell them,
along with connection software, for $200 to $350, depending on the type of
data network that will be used and whether they support features like
short message service.
Whether you choose a PC card or a wireless phone as your modem, the
physical setup is straightforward: simply plug in the device. But the
hardware drivers and the connection software can be finicky to configure.
When I tested a PC card from Sprint and a wireless phone-as-modem from
Verizon, I needed help from both companies' technical support lines to
Once your hardware, software and service ducks are in a row, you are ready
to go anywhere your carrier's network reaches. But as with wireless voice
calls, data connections can be dropped unexpectedly, or you can hit dead
spots. This is not ordinarily a big problem, but be careful not to begin
downloading a large file if you are likely to lose the connection suddenly
- while on a train, for example, or anywhere the signal is weak. An
interruption will almost always mean restarting the download.
Finally, you may have a simpler, more reliable option. If you live in San
Diego or Denver, you can subscribe to Ricochet. The company offers
unlimited high-speed wireless Internet access for $49.95 a month, using a
PC card that costs $99.95. The service is compatible with Windows,
Macintosh and Pocket PC operating systems, and the company says its
technology, which sends data via radio transmitters, is unusually secure.
Ricochet was available in 14 places around the country until August 2001.
Its parent company went bankrupt that summer, and Ricochet has slowly been
buying and leasing back its licenses and equipment. The company says it
expects to be operating in six to eight additional areas, including San
Francisco, later this year.
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