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ISSUE 575: Alan Zisman- Oct 31 2000

The high-tech office


Connecting to the Web with a notebook and a cell phone is the best wireless bet

Recent columns have looked at ways to keep connected everywhere. We've tried wireless access for Palm and Visor handheld computers: nice in theory, but not yet available in Canada, thank you.

And we've accessed the Internet on a cell phone, only to find both the tiny screen and tiny keypad awkward to use. And on both the handheld computer and cell phone, the Web clipping needed to format Web pages to fit the small screens limited the information available.

But many of us already have nearly all the hardware we need to connect to the Internet anytime, anywhere, and without the Web clipping compromises.

Take a garden-variety notebook computer, add a common-place cell phone, find some way to connect the two and you've got a low-tech solution to the high-tech dilemma of how to stay online away from home or office.

There's nothing new about this. People have been connecting their notebook computers and cell phones for years. But previously, you needed a special, cell phone-ready PC-card modem, which in turn could only be connected to a limited number of cell phone models with a hard-to-find cable.

And the resulting connections, at 9,600 bits per second were not exactly at lightning speed.

Newer digital phones simplify the process somewhat. Because they can deal with digital data, no special modem is needed. In fact, no modem is needed at all. Instead, your digital phone can be the modem, connecting directly to your computer's serial port. (Note that phrase: serial port. That means that serial-port challenged newer Apple Macintosh iBooks and PowerBooks need not apply. Sorry, Mac fans).

Of course, this being the computer industry, it can't be quite that simple. To connect a Clearnet Mike Motorola i1000 Plus phone to my notebook, I still needed a special cable and software CD, sold by Clearnet as the Mike Wireless Modem Kit (about $100). The software installs drivers to let the computer see the digital phone as an external fax modem. (Besides the model to connect to PC serial ports, Clearnet also has a Palm-capable cable kit which, however, could not be used to connect to the different connector of my Visor handheld.)

I couldn't get it to work at all under Windows 2000, but installation under Windows 98 was straightforward. Once the phone was installed, using it was simple. Turn the phone on, open standard dial-up-networking software and connect to my normal Internet service provider (paying, of course, both cell phone and Internet connection charges).

Once connected, I could use my Internet service as usual: e-mail, Web browsing and on and on. Unlike the Web clipping services, it was full access, not scaled down content from a limited number of pages.

Operating as a fax modem, I could send faxes directly from the notebook anywhere. Too good to be true? There's still a catch. Speed is still rated at a meager 9,600 bps. Nowhere near the 56,000 bps promised (though never delivered) by wired landline modems, to say nothing of the much higher speeds of broadband cable and ADSL connections.

While Web pages took a while to fully appear, this true digital 9,600 bps felt faster and more stable than the analogue version I remember from a few years ago. And Clearnet promises it will improve.

Over the next few months, the company expects to introduce packet data service to its Mike network, more than doubling connections to 20,000 bps both for "tethered" services, where the phone is connected to a notebook or handheld computer, and for "untethered" online services, direct to the phones. Existing phones will automatically upgrade their software to make use of the faster speeds.

Further down the road is the promise of so-called 3G, the third generation wireless services. The company envisions mobile connection speeds up to 384 kilobits per second, and broadband two megabits per second when stationary. 3G services, requiring massive network upgrades and government approval, are expected for 2003-'04. *


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan