Dial-up Internet access goes wireless.

Inside the Internet.
Aug. 22 2003 3:18 PM

Who Needs Wi-Fi?

Dial-up Internet access goes wireless.

Intel's "Unwire" ads hawk the appeal of wireless Internet access from anywhere, but try finding a Wi-Fi hotspot for your Centrino laptop. Even in the tech-infested Bay Area,outside of a few hotels and coffee shops, you're usually out of luck. San Francisco Airport's international terminal is draped with Intel's banners, but its only hotspots are outside the security checkpoints. Once you've gotten past the TSA, you're stuck without access until the other end of your flight.

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But there's a different wireless service that's quietly sneaking up on Wi-Fi to offer the ubiquitous coverage that's teased in Intel's 30-second spots: Internet access over the same network that your cell phone uses. Think of it as the next generation of dial-up.

Sprint PCS (which technically isn't cellular), Verizon, and other wireless carriers sell Internet access cards that slide into a PC or PDA and tap into the Internet via the network they use to provide wireless phone service. Sprint's network is based on a wireless standard dubbed CDMA 2000, which some industry watchers say beats the European-style GSM networks now making their way across the United States. One thing's for sure: It'll undo Sprint's reputation for spotty coverage. A recent test drive of Sprint's service from Las Vegas to Silicon Valley demonstrated just how widespread PCS coverage has become, andjust how tightly Wi-Fi addicts are tethered to their sparse, short-range hotspots. A Sprint-equipped laptop worked not only inside the airport, but also inside a car motoring through the Mojave Desert. (Yes, it works while you're rolling down the road, but pull over if you're driving. The dumb driving stunt worse than talking on the phone is reading your e-mail.) Coverage isn't ubiquitous—getting online from Baker, Calif., proved impossible despite the town's cell-phone networks—but it's miles ahead of hunting for a Starbucks with a T-Mobile sticker in the window.

Sprint's range of cards (there are currently four models) fit into the standard dock on the side of most laptops, or the Compact Flash slot on many PDAs. They connect directly to the company's national digital network, which runs up to 144 kilobits per second, three times faster than you can hope for from an old-fashioned dial-up connection. Sprint claims average connection speeds are closer to 50 to 70 Kbps, but I was able to get it up to 100 a couple of times. That makes the service slow for Web surfing but plenty fast for keeping up on e-mail, instant messages, and news headlines (via an aggregator). Downloading MapQuest pages can take a minute, but it saves you the embarrassment of rolling down the window to ask for directions.

There are two reasons that cellular Net access hasn't caught on yet: Price and hassle. The cards cost more than $150 each, and Sprint's service adds at least $40 a month. That's a worthwhile expense for a traveling sales rep, but a lot to swallow for a home consumer with an Internet addiction. On top of that, installing and configuring the cards can be an aggravation, with the confusing error messages that come with any PC hardware not already built into the box. One of our testers, a professional software engineer, blew part of his workday upgrading device drivers on his two laptops after getting an error message that said, "The PCS Connection Card is not present or is already in use," when the card was clearly in its slot and idle.

Sprint markets their Internet cards as a business productivity tool, rather than a consumer product like a cell phone, although anyone can buy one. That's probably smart: Most computer users won't like the service as long as it involves add-on cards and baffling software installs. So, don't be surprised if the next generation of Centrino laptops bundles similar hardwarealong with Wi-Fi to provide ubiquitous wireless access straight out of the box. But until Intel's products catch up with their ads, these cards are the real way to unwire your life.

Webhead thanks Cliff Skolnick of Iron Systems and Peter Sicilia of Addamark Technologies.

Paul Boutin is a writer living in San Francisco.

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