In the decade since truly portable computers hit the market, the machines have become substantially more useful, while their weight and cost have plunged. But when it comes time to communicate with the office, portable computing can be exceedingly difficult. Most travelers with computers would cheerfully forgo the promise of the Information Superhighway if they could just get a decent two-lane data blacktop today.

Some things have gotten better. In most hotels, you no longer have to attack the phone with a screwdriver to hook up your laptop with alligator clips. And even in the most out-of-the-way areas, you're unlikely to run into a phone line so bad that it's unsafe for data at any speed.

NO-TEL HOTEL. Still, many facets of computer communications remain far harder than they should be. Data jacks on public phones are rare. When you plug your computer into that inviting modular jack in your room, you may find that your modem can't deal with the hotel's digital switchboard. Communications software is another headache. Many programs offer no simple way to handle credit-card calls or long-distance access numbers. Many's the time that the vagaries of hotel phones, inadequate software, and long-distance access codes have forced me to give up and use the hotel fax instead.

To make matters worse, shortcomings in a phone system built for voice calls often keep modems from transferring data at anywhere near their advertised speed. And some programs, such as cc:Mail, aren't smart enough to restart a file transfer where it broke off when a bad line killed the connection.

The growing demand for more and better services is beginning to have an impact. Local phone companies are upgrading their systems. Doug Humphrey, president of Digital Express Group, a Greenbelt (Md.) provider of Internet services, says phone companies are gradually fixing problems that give data transmissions fits but that were tolerated because there was little or no effect on voice calls.

Better modems also offer hope for relief soon. In June, the International Telecommunication Union approved a new standard for modems called V.34. Under good conditions, V.34 allows communications at 28,800 bits per second (fast enough to transmit a single-spaced typed page in little more than a second). But perhaps more important for travelers, the standard was designed to adapt to less-than-ideal phone lines and to work over cranky hotel phone systems.

DIGITAL DELIVERANCE. Getting the full benefit of the new modems requires one of them at each end of the line. But their use could spread quickly: Motorola Inc. Vice-President Ross Seider expects the new units to be available at the cost of current 14,400-bps modems--$200 to $400--by yearend.

Digital phone service may also improve matters, but it's further away. Eight years after it was first rolled out, the Integrated Services Digital Network is finally--and slowly--becoming a reality. Unlike the existing analog phone system, ISDN was designed from the ground up to handle data--at speeds of 64,000 bits per second and up. But even ISDN boosters admit that it's likely to be several years at least before your hotel room's phone hookup is digital.

In the meantime, AT&T is working to provide relief for traveling executives whose offices use Novell NetWare or Lotus Notes networks. By the end of the year, the telephone giant plans an easy way to let companies link their local-area networks to branch offices. Also in the plan is a dial-up service that would allow a traveler to log in to a home network by making a local call--avoiding the complexities of long-distance circuits and fidgety remote-access network software.

"We're trying to make data as easy as voice," says AT&T Vice-President Erik Grimmelmann. That's a goal to gladden the hearts of business travelers. Too bad it can't be achieved faster.

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