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Mobile Internet Connections: You Can Take It With You
    Handsets, smartphones, and wireless modems
    (palmOne Treo 650 & Samsung i730, 8/2005)

    by Douglas Dixon

Speeds - EV-DO & 1XRTT
The Carriers - Cingular, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile
Handsets - Text messaging & E-mail
PDAs and Smartphones - palmOne Treo 650 & Samsung i730
PC Card Wireless Modems - Cellular modems
Getting Wired, without Wires 
References 

For better or worse, keeping in touch while you are on the go has never been easier. The good news is that you don't have to lug a laptop with you to check your E-mail. And the bad news is that you can't escape: even today's mobile phone handsets can do E-mail and browse the Web. But at least you can be connected on your own terms -- new wireless PDAs and the deployment of next-generation 10X faster wireless networks provide an astounding array of options.

There are three general approaches to getting a mobile Internet connection, depending on your needs, dexterity with keypads, and budget:

- For quick E-mails, you can get a data connection for your mobile phone handset, for as little as $5 a month added to your voice plan, providing unlimited wireless E-mail and Web access, albeit on a tiny screen and limited device. Not bad for short E-mails, and best for those experienced with text messaging by typing on a phone keypad.

- For more flexibility, you can trade in your phone for a wireless personal data assistant (PDA) like the palmOne Treo or a Windows Mobile device, combining phone and computer in a single device. A PDA or smartphone provides a more reasonable interface for managing E-mail (and even attachments) and Web surfing. However, this additional data traffic costs significantly more: 10 MB of traffic for $30 a month, or $15 to $50 a month for unlimited data service (there's a big difference between carriers).

       

- And for people who just cannot give up their laptop, you can get a PC card cell modem that slides into your laptop and provides wireless Internet access through the phone system, instead of having to hunt out (and pay for) a Wi-Fi hotspot. However, the carriers charge even more for this kind of heavy use -- $60 a month for unlimited use on the current network (1X), or $80 a month for the next-generation EV-DO network that is 10X faster.

Speeds

The big wireless news this year is the roll-out of the next-generation 10X faster wireless service, called EV-DO (Evolution Data Optimized), by carriers including Verizon Wireless and Sprint.

- Not surprisingly, current-generation wireless data connections (called 1XRTT or just 1X) provide speeds like a 56K dial-up connection, averaging around 40 to 80 Kbps, and bursting to 144 Kbps. That's OK for checking mail, but painful for downloading attachments or surfing the Web.

- EV-DO is much faster: averaging 400 to 700 Kbps, and peaking up to 2 Mbps -- although that's for downloads, upload speeds are significantly less, at 40 to 70 Kbps.

That's closer to what you may have experienced with early DSL or cable broadband connections, although providers like Comcast and Verizon have been significantly increasing speeds. In our area, Verizon Online DSL offers 3 Mbps downloads with 768 Kbps uploads (www.verizon.net), and Comcast just announced another speed upgrade for cable in July, offering 6 Mbps / 384 Kbps and 8 Mbps / 768 Kbps (www.comcast.com). Very tasty, but still not close to local network connections at 100 Mbps.

The Carriers

Wireless phone service in the U.S. has been consolidated by mergers into four major carriers.

       

- Cingular is now the largest carrier after the acquisition of AT&T Wireless (www.cingular.com), with 50 million customers (and features rollover minutes).

- Verizon Wireless is next with 45 million customers (www.verizonwireless.com), promoting reliability and business services ("can you hear me now?").

             

- Sprint has 35 million customers after completing the merger with Nextel (www.sprintpcs.com), and is pushing its PCS Vision entertainment and multimedia services.

- T-Mobile is the smallest carrier with 18 million customers (www.t-mobile.com), but the coolest with Catherine Zeta-Jones as spokesperson (www.t-mobile.com/company/about/czj.asp).

Verizon and Sprint have related local, long distance, and broadband services that can be bundled with wireless services for both consumer and business customers. Cingular and T-Mobile use the GSM cellular technology that is dominant overseas, and therefore are good choices for international coverage. Verizon still supports an extensive legacy analog network from its Bell Atlantic Mobile days, in addition to its CDMA service. Verizon and now Sprint are rolling out their next-generation EV-DO networks, while Cingular is starting to launch its UTMS equivalent. T-Mobile is owned by Germany's Deutsche Telekom, which has not yet decided whether to invest in upgrading to faster service.

Other niche carriers you may have heard of actually are acting as a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO), providing service using one of these networks (i.e. Virgin Mobile on Sprint).

Handsets

You don't need to wait for next-generation wireless to stay connected; and you don't even need a fancy PDA phone or smartphone. If all you need is simple E-mail service, you can do a lot with most of today's handsets. Your phone probably already supports text messaging, of course. Plus, it may be a camera phone, supporting picture messaging and even video capture and playback. And it also may support downloading mini-applications and games.

To get started with minimal effort, you actually can use text messaging for basic E-mail. Depending on your carrier, people can send E-mail that gets delivered as a text message on your phone (e.g., send to the number @vtext.com for Verizon Wireless, or use the form on the www.vtext.com or messaging.sprintpcs.com Web portals). And you can send E-mails from your phone as text messages with an E-mail addresses. These messages are severely limited in length, i.e., a maximum of 160 characters. But it's E-mail, working on almost any phone, and charged against your text message plan (around 10 cents per message, bundled like minutes, or unlimited for $5 to $15, depending on carrier and conditions).

The next step is to access your existing E-mail accounts. This requires an E-mail application on your phone, either built-in on newer phones or downloaded from the carrier's E-store for older equipment. Just enter the E-mail server information, and you can browse your accumulated messages and send and receive mail (this may require more magic to reach though corporate firewalls). Again, this can be clumsy to use when trying to scan through a list of messages or reading a long E-mail on a tiny screen, or when typing E-mail addresses and non-trivial messages on the phone keypad.

        Samsung SCH-a890

This kind of use requires an additional data service beyond your existing voice plan, which is available bundled with mobile Web access, instant messaging, and personalized alerts. For Web access, the carriers typically provide wireless portals to major news, entertainment, and information sites that are formatted for viewing on phone displays and interacting with a keypad. You also can search and browse to any other Internet site, though complex pages will be difficult to display and view on the handset.

These data plans cost around $5 to $15 a month for unlimited use, further bundled with features including text and picture messaging. Verizon Wireless and Sprint also offer bundles that add video service for watching live TV and video-on-demand clips for $15 to $20 (on supported phones), in case you need a distraction from E-mail. Newer handsets even support the faster EV-DO service (where available), although it's not much of a benefit when dealing with screen-size chunks of text -- but the videos certainly look great.

PDAs and Smartphones

Handsets work great as occasional or emergency E-mail devices, and are useful for enforcing a limit on your wireless connectivity (sorry, boss, I can't receive the huge PowerPoint attachment and compose a lengthy E-mail response). Your use also will also be constrained by your tolerance and dexterity for tapping out messages on the phone keypad.

For more extensive access, stepping up to a combination PDA / phone device brings a lot of advantages. The screen is larger for viewing more information, you can interact and enter text with a stylus or even a dedicated keyboard, and the PDA can synch and store other documents from your desktop that you may want to reference, including text, spreadsheets, and presentations. The PDA also serves as a portable media player, for music, images, and even videos.

The real news with these devices, however, is that they are just much faster and more capable. Palm devices from a couple years ago ran at 33 MHz with 160x160 displays, which required visible waits when switching applications or searching and sorting lists of names or messages. Today's devices are much more responsive, with 300 to 500 MHz processors and larger 320x320 displays, although they are obviously not quite up to the GHz speed of desktops.

You'll find two types of such combo PDA / phone devices: PDA-looking flat devices that have added phone functions, and "smartphone" phone-looking devices that have bulked-up PDA capabilities. If you're serious about using the PDA side, go with a PDA-based device built either on the Palm OS platform (www.palmsource.com), or the Microsoft Windows Mobile / Pocket PC platform (www.microsoft.com/windowsmobile). Both platforms give you colorful touch-sensitive displays, access to libraries of applications, syncing of contacts and calendars with Outlook and other desktop applications, and compatibility with Microsoft Office and other desktop files.

           

The hot PDA phone devices of this summer are the palmOne Treo 650 and the Samsung i730.

- The palmOne Treo 650 is focused on ease of use; it's slightly smaller, with a smaller but higher-res screen above a tiny QWERTY keyboard -- and significantly less expensive (www.palmone.com).

- The Samsung i730 is a more powerful Windows Mobile device, with a faster processor and more memory, plus it has stronger communications support with EV-DO and built-in Wi-Fi (www.samsungusa.com/wireless). It uses a slide-out keyboard to make room for a physically larger portrait-style screen.

            palmOne Treo 650 and Samsung i730

Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and Cingular currently offer the Treo 650 for around $400, with a built-in 640 x 480 VGA camera. Verizon introduced the Samsung i730 in July for $600, without camera (some businesses do not allow cameras on site, which means you are also without your phone and PDA).

The listed specs for techies:

The Treo 650 has a 312 MHz processor and 23 MB user-available memory, with a 1.8 inch, 320 x 320 display. The device is 4.4 x 2.3 x 0.9 inches and weighs 6.3 ounces.

The Samsung i730 has a 520 MHz processor and 64 MB RAM, with a 2.8 inch, 240 x 320 display. The device is 5.2 x 2.8 x 0.6 inches, and weighs 5.5 ounces.

The Treo offers 5 hours talk time and 2 weeks standby, compared to 2.2 hours and 5.4 days for the i730.

Beyond the internal memory, both devices provide Secure Digital (SD I/O) expansion slots to store all those documents and media files that you want to bring wherever you go (512K SD memory cards are dropping to around $50, and 1 GB around $75). Both also include Bluetooth for connecting to a wireless earphone, and also for transferring files and wireless modem use (if enabled by the carrier). The tiny keyboards do take some getting used to -- one adult thumb can span two or three keys, so you need to experiment with how comfortable you are at reading and using mini key caps.

What this means is that you really can read all your E-mail on the road, and even download attachments, in order to view, edit and return Word and Excel documents. You can show a slideshow, PowerPoint presentation, or video overview (in a small group, or transfer it to a compatible projector). You can capture images and video clips and send them directly back to the office. Or browse the Web to collect information and cut and paste it into a report.

All this cool flexibility comes at monthly cost, of course, for the enhanced PDA data service. Here it really pays to shop the different carriers and plans. As of this writing, Sprint offers $15 per month unlimited data, T-Mobile offers $30, and Cingular and Verizon offer plans by buckets of MBs, or $45 to $50 for unlimited service. (For very limited use, Verizon also offers a pay-as-you-go plan at $0.015 per KB, which quickly adds up to $15 per MB.) These services include EV-DO service, where available.

PC Card Wireless Modems

For the real road warrior, however, nothing but a laptop will do. These folks need a dedicated mobile phone for making calls, while simultaneously multi-task between multiple windows on the laptop. Doing one or at most two things at once on a PDA is just too limiting -- It's really not fun trying to switch quickly between multiple documents to gather information, or wirelessly sync and update groups of documents.

Using Wi-Fi is great, if you can find a hotspot -- and have time to stop there, and are subscribed to that particular service, and don't mind the lack of security for your network transmissions. A better alternative is to take advantage of all those cell towers by using a cellular modem. Instead of worrying about different kinds of connections (and pricing) at every stop -- the airport, the hotel, the coffee shop -- and instead of having to stop at all, you can just use a wireless modem PC card in your laptop to connect directly to the cellular service, at 1X or EV-DO rates.

        Novatel V620 PC Card

Cellular modems are available from the carriers for $50 to $100 and up, depending on speed and type of connection. Several carriers offer bundled plans at rates like 20 MB for $40 a month, or unlimited plans for $80 (personal and business plans also differ). Verizon also offers a $60 unlimited data plan for 1X service (the $80 plan supports EV-DO when available).

Getting Wired, without Wires

With today's mobile phones and services, you really do need to turn off your phone to escape the range of electronic contact. For just a little contact, for occasional or emergency communications, you can exchange E-mails through text messages without making a significant investment in phones or monthly services.

To take the next step of at least being able to screen your E-mails on the go, today's phones support E-mail applications that can sync with your server. You can browse and send messages to keep in touch, although the limited screen size and text entry on the phone keypad do serve as a natural damper on spending too much time with longer messages.

But for more serious use while on the go, today's PDA phones provide more reasonable E-mail handling, including working with attachments. You still don't want to be downloading huge PowerPoint decks to a PDA, but you can stay connected and keep things moving with the timeliness of working at a desktop.

Or for a dedicated user who can justify the monthly expense, use a PC card cellular model to get your laptop online. Another option for laptop users is to use your PDA phone as a wireless modem, connecting with a USB cable or wirelessly through a Bluetooth connection (if supported by the device). The carriers are not big fans of this approach; it's OK by them in moderation, but they will notice if you are using your PDA for continuous data transfers and suggest that you move up to the full PC connection rate.

As should be clear by now, choosing between these services is a delicate balance between the kind of equipment you want to carry (size and cost), the usefulness of having the connection (accessing through a small screen), and the non-trivial issue of who is going to bear the monthly costs. The prices given here are approximate as of this writing, and vary by carrier, region, and coverage plan, so look at the whole picture -- the phone/PDA, voice service, data service, and other services like text messaging. You'll never have to leave the Internet behind again.

References

Cingular (AT&T Wireless)
    www.cingular.com

Verizon Wireless
    www.verizonwireless.com

Sprint (Nextel)
    www.sprintpcs.com

T-Mobile
    www.t-mobile.com

 

Verizon Online DSL
    www.verizon.net

Comcast
    www.comcast.com

 

Verizon Wireless - TXT Messages
    www.vtext.com

Sprint PCS - TXT Messages
    messaging.sprintpcs.com

 

Microsoft - Windows Mobile / Pocket PC
    www.microsoft.com/windowsmobile
    www.microsoft.com/windowsmobile/pocketpc

Samsung i730
    www.samsungusa.com/wireless

 

PalmSource - Palm OS
    www.palmsource.com

palmOne - PDAs
    www.palmone.com

Treo 650
    www.palmone.com/us/products/smartphones/treo650