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Wireless Devices: Mobile Internet Access

    by Douglas Dixon

    See also: Promise of Wireless: Location-Based Info - Location-Based Services

    OLD - See Princeton, Can You Hear Me? (9/2003)

    Laptop Access - Wireless PDAs - Web Phone Displays - Web Phone Messaging - Web Phone Services

Are you ready to go wireless? Do you need access to the Internet everywhere you go? This will be commonplace in a few years, with Web browsers built into mobile phones and wireless access built into handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs). Forrester Research has predicted that more than 55 million Internet-enabled cell phones and PDAs will be in use by 2005 But even now, you have a wide variety of options for getting connected, with very clear trade-offs among power and functionality, size and convenience, and cost.


If you are a power user, and need to carry your laptop with you wherever you go, then you can get a wireless connection for your laptop, and check your E-mail and surf the net wherever you go. Just please pull your car over to the side of the road when sending e-mail or making purchases on-line.

If you are a frequent traveler, and need to travel light with your mobile phone as your lifeline, then you can get an Internet-enabled phone for E-mail and information access. However, Internet phones have very small displays, with only a handful of lines of plain text, so you cannot use them to access lengthy Web sites. In addition, you will want to keep your messages short as you peck away on the telephone keypad.

The compromise option between these two is to use a wireless handheld PDA. PDA's can be almost as light as a mobile phone, but still have a significantly larger screen and a better mechanism for interacting with the display and entering text. Yes, you have to carry two separate devices, a phone and a PDA, but that also means that you can access data on the PDA while you are talking on the phone.

No matter what your preferred approach, you can sign up for wireless service today, and access a wide range of Internet services. "Applications are happening now as part of everyday life," says Nick Zemlachenko, director of wireless data sales and support with Verizon Communications for the Philadelphia region. "Products and services can be delivered a lot more efficiently than they used to be."

Verizon, as we all now know thanks to the recent strike, is the new name for the company created earlier this year by the merger of Bell Atlantic and GTE. (See for the new company, and for services in this region under the Bell Atlantic Mobile name.)

Laptop Access

If you do need to have full Internet access from your laptop, then you have several different options for how to connect. In either case, you need to have some sort of wireless dial-up device that acts like a standard computer modem that you plug into a phone jack. You then can access the full capabilities of the Internet from your laptop, albeit at a slower rate than dial-up service.

If you already have a digital phone, you can use your phone to do the dialing, and connect it by a cable to your laptop. "This gives you quick 'Net service, connected to your own ISP [Internet Service Provider]," says Zemlachenko. "You work with your existing mobile price plan, and share the minutes." You can add this service to your existing digital plan for around $10 a month, sold under names like Verizon Web Access Dial-up and Sprint PCS Wireless Web Connection.

The second approach is to use a separate wireless modem, which looks like other flat PC card devices that slide into a slot in your laptop, but with the addition of a small antenna attached to one end. "It's the same Internet experience," says Zemlachenko, "but Verizon is your ISP, and provides a separate E-mail account." And it does not tie up your phone line. This dedicated service, like the service offerings for PDA's are typically packaged as unlimited usage for a fixed fee. Verizon offers this service as Web Access Internet Plus for $40 a month.

This kind of service has been available for years in niche markets. "We have been heavily into wireless data for the past five years," says Zemlachenko. "It's a vertical opportunity, especially in public safety. The Princeton police patrol with laptops using Verizon to access national and state crime databases. The New Jersey state police are starting to deploy, and the Philadelphia Police Department has 850 cars. PSE&G uses a thousand mobile data computers for dispatch of work orders so they can provide a higher level of customer service and process more jobs per day with up to date information."

Wireless PDAs

Handheld PDA's provide a promising compromise between the full Internet access possible with a laptop and the limited access of a phone. For example, the Palm has a graphical display at around 160 x 160 resolution, and a typical text display with 10 lines of 25 or more characters. This means it's not unreasonable to scroll though a list of E-mail messages, click on the ones you want to read, and then compose a response by using the Graffiti handwriting recognition or the on-screen keyboard.

Palm currently offers one model, the Palm VII, with a built-in wireless modem. Palm offers unlimited access through the BellSouth wireless data network for $44.99 per month. Owners of the Palm V model can get connected with the OmniSky / Minstrel wireless modem that slides onto the back of the unit. The modem lists for $299, but has been discounted to $149. The service costs $39.95 a month for unlimited access through AT&T. Similarly, Verizon offers Web Access Internet Plus for Palm organizers for $25 a month within the Verizon region, or $35 for lower roaming rates across the U.S.

Using a PDA is still something of a pain, but it's a lot better than the alternatives of lugging around a laptop, or squinting at the miniature screen of a mobile phone and punching out a message with the tiny keypad. Even without a wireless PDA, I have lightened my load on trips by leaving the laptop at home and using the Palm modem to connect my Palm to the hotel phone line so I can check E-mail and even surf the Web.

"If you do E-mail as a regular task, the phone interface is not the best choice," says Zemlachenko. "Application developers are trying to perfect a common platform, for phone, handheld, and laptop, and be able to present a screen consistent with the device."

After all, you really do not want to try to display a complete Web page on a handheld display. It would be clumsy to try to scroll around a large page on the smaller handheld display, many pages have fancy animated features using technologies like Java and Shockwave that are beyond the capabilities of the handheld software, and you really do not even want to wait to download large images and backgrounds.

Instead, Palm offers a service called "Web clipping" and other wireless portals offer "proxy" services that simplify the display of Web pages by removing extraneous features, simplify the layout, and even shrink the images to fit the display. 

Web Phone Displays: WAP

At the other extreme of wireless Internet connectivity is the new development of Web-enabled mobile phones. The good news with a Web phone is that you really can access Internet resources, to get instant up-to-date information, and even to receive and send E-mail messages. The trade-off is that a small phone display and keypad is a fairly limited interface for exchanging information.

But if you need that kind of connectivity, a mobile Web phone can be a lifesaver. "It gives you Internet access out on the road," says Zemlachenko. "You can access applications from the phone, find food and restaurants, or get the best price on product, do a UPC lookup. You can check stock quotes, respond and take advantage of the market. Salespeople can find out about a company, and get access to information just before a meeting."

Like the laptop dial-up services, you can add Internet and E-mail service to your existing digital plan for around $10 a month, sold under names like Verizon Web Access Microbrowser and Sprint PCS Wireless Web Browser.

For an example of how this service works, I'll describe the interface on a Qualcomm QCP-860 digital phone that Verizon loaned me. This is an Internet-capable digital phone, with a display that can show four rows of 12 characters each, or just enough to display one phone number per line (i.e., "609-456-7890").

To squeeze an interactive interface onto these small displays, a new Web interface style has been developed for mobile phones based on simple text menus. WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) was developed by an industrial consortium and has become the de-facto global standard for wireless information and telephony services accessed on hand-held devices such as wireless phones, PDAs and pagers ( Web sites that want to provide mobile access must then be WAP-enabled to reformat their content for small screens, and mobile phones have built-in mini-browsers that display and interact with the WAP content.


When you connect to Verizon's service, the phone displays the main menu, starting with the first four lines:

1      > MyVZW 
2      Websites 
3     Hot Spots 
OK   |   V

Select a menu item by pressing the corresponding number key, or by using the scroll up and down keys to move to that line, and then press the key under OK. The down arrow next to OK (indicated by "V"), means that there are more items in the menu if you continue to scroll down (up to nine):

4     Portals 
5     Customer Care 
6     Shopping 
7     Messaging 

To get current information, like weather, you keep moving through the menus: Press 2 for Websites, and then 7 for Weather. Each press sends a message back to the WAP server, and then you wait a couple of seconds for the response to come back and be displayed.

At this point, you reach the Weather menu, and need to enter your location. With the WAP protocol, this menu can have you enter a numeric zip code, and then send it in to the server. In response, you receive an abbreviated weather forecast that you can then scroll through on your phone:

Now 51 F 

Wind WNW at 
7 mi/hr

Sun: 38 - 55 
Mostly Cloudy

Web Phone Messaging

Beyond information access on a Web phone is two-way messaging and E-mail. This requires patience, persistence, and brevity, as you peck out text messages on the telephone keypad. For example, to type the letter "n," you need to press the "6" key (with letters "mno") twice, to cycle through the sequence from "m" to "n." You need to press quickly, because the cursor automatically moves on to the next character position as soon as you pause for a heartbeat. And entering special characters like "@" requires a detour though more menus. New interfaces are being developed to try to improve text entry, so you can just type each key once, and the phone will guess the appropriate letter or word that you are trying to enter.

The other issue with messaging this way is that you are on-line as you are laboriously typing your messages, which can be an issue if you are paying for the service by the minute. You can see why this kind of service is best for short messages, and can expect that as it gets more popular we will be receiving short, lower-case, and heavily abbreviated e-mail.

"We are getting closer," says Zemlachenko. "It's not out of the question to see the Internet advance out to the phone. You can just press the key for information on a product." 

Web Phone Services

As you consider signing up for wireless Internet access, you need to ask the same kind of questions that you ask for any mobile phone, particularly the type usage that you expect to make of the service and the geographical region that you tend to travel within. National carriers like Sprint tend to focus their service on major cities, and then build out their coverage along major arteries between cities. Historically regional carriers like Verizon tend to have fuller coverage throughout their home region, although consolidation has allowed carriers like Verizon to offer service throughout the nation.

The phone-based services tend to be sold as add-ons to your existing digital phone service, and therefore can share the monthly budget of minutes in your plan. Dedicated users can also step up to an unlimited plan for a larger monthly payment. Some services also charge by the amount of traffic, and extra fees for traveling outside of your carrier's home region.

The PDA and laptop modem services tend to be sold as flat rate plans with unlimited service. These services actually use a different communication technology, CDPD (Cellular Digital Packet Data), which requires additional equipment at the cellular sites. As a result, the coverage area for CDPD service can differ from a carrier's regular digital phone service.

If you want to use your wireless device as your primary Internet interface, you also need to be able to access your existing accounts. Some services allow you to dial in to your existing ISP and access your E-mail directly, even behind a company firewall. Other services require that they serve as your ISP, which means that you either have to change your E-mail address, or arrange to forward all your existing accounts to the new address.

Finally, be aware that this technology is changing fast, and be ready to upgrade your equipment in another year or two. In particular, current "second generation" data rates for wireless service are rather slow, around 14.4 to 19.2 Kbps (thousand bits per second), compared to PC modems that transmit over phone lines at 56 Kbps.

"The next threshold is 144 Kbps, anticipated in early 2001," says Zemlachenko. "We continue testing newer technology, and working on application development and network infrastructure. There is a whole lot going on in the background. We are going to see speeds tremendously faster than where we are today."


Sprint PCS Wireless Web ->

Verizon Web Access / Bell Atlantic Mobile ->