Wireless setup can boost laptop speed

April 18, 2002|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

NORMALLY, IT'S HARD to get excited about surfing the Web at 56 Kilobits per second. That's about as fast as a dialup modem can communicate over a good phone line.

If you're accustomed to broadband Internet access though cable, DSL or an office network, 56K is downright pokey. But if you're surfing the Web on a laptop computer from your your car in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven 30 miles from downtown Baltimore, 56K looks very good indeed.

That was my introduction to 3G-1X, or CDMA2000 1X or something like that - acronyms for the first generation of the third generation of wireless communication services. (Wireless providers love gobbledygook.) Whatever you call it, the service worked as advertised, and it's four times as fast as the Internet connection that cell phone providers offered until now.

Verizon Wireless, whose service I tried, rolled out its Express Network on the East and West coasts in January, followed by 13 more cities this month. By the end of the year, Verizon says, the service will be available in 75 percent of the country.

Other wireless carriers plan similar rollouts. They're migrating their networks to new 3G technology that will provide faster PC connections and eventually lead to a generation of phones and other handheld gadgets that can browse the Web at broadband speed and even display real-time video.

But that's a ways off. To take advantage of what's available now, you'll need money (of course), a laptop computer and your choice of a $300 wireless modem card or an $160 Kyocera cell phone kit that hooks up to your PC and acts as a modem. I tried the Sierra Wireless AirCard 555, which slipped into a slot on the side of my venerable IBM ThinkPad.

The only hard thing about hooking up was making sure I installed the software in the correct order before slipping the modem card into the slot. The system relies on two programs. One connects your PC to the digital wireless network and monitors incoming calls and faxes. The other speeds up the connection by compressing and decompressing Web pages and other data on the fly.

Verizon's software gives you a choice of connecting with the Express Network or the company's older, slower 14.4k service, which is often available where Express isn't offered. Since the modem uses the same digital network as Verizon's cell phones, you can plug a headset microphone into a port on the edge of the modem card and use it to make a voice call, too.

I spend so much time trying to get computers to talk to one another that I'm amazed when something like this works out of the box. The Aircard not only connected in my home (which is on the border of cell phone purgatory), but also in half a dozen other locations around the city, including places where I've had trouble with cellular voice calls. It never dropped a call, even when the on-screen meter showed signal strength was marginal.

At 56K, Web pages don't exactly explode onto the screen, and I wouldn't trade in my broadband connection for a wireless modem.

But for travelers who need connectivity and can't get to a phone line, the Express Network does the job - better than most dialup services. I tried a half dozen modem speed tests, all with results between 42K and 76K, so Verizon is on the mark with its claims.

With data compression, the system can provide up to 144K in bursts. Unfortunately, you won't pick up much speed in normal surfing.

Even so, the only wireless service I tried that could match this speed was Metricom's Ricochet. But it was limited to locations along major highways in a handful of cities. In any case, the company went belly up last year, and Ricochet is only available in Denver at the moment.

How well Verizon's Express Network service will work on a daily basis is another question. The system is set up to give priority to voice calls, so if you're in a heavy traffic area, you could wind up losing bandwidth. While I had no problems, there's almost no way to predict how it will perform in every location.

Cost is another issue. Verizon charges $30 a month for the Express Network on top of your regular cell phone contract. Whether you're surfing or making a voice call, you're using your minutes.

The company's popular America's Choice phone package starts at $35 a month for 300 anytime minutes and 4,000 night and weekend minutes from your home area.

The same package with 1,200 anytime minutes is $100 a month. Obviously, what you pay depends on a combination of voice calling, Web surfing and travel habits.

It isn't cheap, but if you only surf casually from home, you can sign up for the Express Network, ditch your current ISP and use the nighttime/weekend minutes to surf on your laptop.

The speed is certainly as good as, and often better than, a standard dialup connection.

I wondered why anyone would spend $300 for the Sierra Wireless modem card when they can get the same performance - and a nice new cell phone - for $160.

John Johnson, a Verizon Wireless spokesman, said many laptop users just don't want to be bothered with the extra cables.

In any case, Verizon's entry into higher-speed wireless Internet service worked almost flawlessly on my PC.

If you travel with a computer, it's worth checking out.

Information: www.verizon wireless.com.

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