The Wireless Laptop Made Simple

Verizon's new AirCard fits laptops and Pocket PCs so they can tap a nationwide data network

When I took a first look at a new wireless data service from VoiceStream Communications (VSTR ) (Tech & You, Mar. 4), I speculated that the clumsy computer-plus-phone setup would become a lot more practical if I only had to deal with a single device. It didn't take long for Verizon Wireless to prove me right by providing a way to use either a laptop or a Pocket PC on Verizon's Express Network. The direct connection, with no cables and no infrared link to a handset, made all the difference in the world in ease of use.

In terms of basic function, both VoiceStream and Verizon (VZ ) provide mobile connections to the Internet at speeds roughly equivalent to a standard dial-up connection. Verizon claims speeds of up to 144 kilobits per second in short bursts, but I found that typical speed was around 50 kilobits per second with a good signal. That's still a bit faster than VoiceStream. In either case, your mileage will vary, since all wireless networks slow down dramatically as signals weaken or as networks get jammed.

Express Network, which is based on Qualcomm's CDMA technology, is currently available on the East Coast between Norfolk, Va., and Portland, Me.; in the San Francisco Bay area; and around Salt Lake City, with most major U.S. cities slated to be added in the course of the year. Sprint PCS (PCS ) plans to launch a similar service nationwide around midyear.

Unlike the VoiceStream system, Verizon does not offer a true "always on" connection; your laptop or handheld actually has to dial a call each time you want to connect to the Internet. In practice, this difference has more effect on how the service is priced than on how it works.

The easiest way to use Express Network is with a $300 Sierra Wireless AirCard 555 PC Card. The alternative is an $80 Kyocera 2235 handset, but then you are back to awkward cables for data. For technical reasons, Verizon (and once its service starts, Sprint) cannot bill for data by the byte. Instead, you pay for the time you are connected, with your data minutes coming out of the same bucket as your voice minutes. Express Network is available for a $30 surcharge on any calling plan costing $35 a month or more. For a total of $65 a month, you can get 300 daytime minutes (combined voice and data) and 3,000 minutes nights and weekends.

I tested the AirCard with both a Windows XP laptop and a Compaq iPAQ Pocket PC. Although the iPAQ with its PC Card adapter sleeve makes for a hefty 11 1/2-oz. package nearly 1 1/2 in. thick, it worked very well. The only difficulty I ran into was that the Verizon network does not currently work with Microsoft's virtual private networking software (a problem Verizon promises to fix), so I was unable to get through BusinessWeek's firewall to read e-mail. The AirCard dialer also could be better integrated with the Pocket PC's software; you have to open a call using Verizon's software, then open the e-mail program or browser. But I was able to send and receive mail from a couple of Internet e-mail accounts.

Using the AirCard in a laptop was generally a happy experience, but revealed some shortcomings in software for the new wireless age. For browsing the Web and handling e-mail, it felt about the same as a good dial-up connection, and I was even able to log on to our corporate system with Nortel Networks' (NT ) virtual private network software.

The biggest problem is that Microsoft (MSFT ) software--especially its Outlook e-mail, address book, and contact manager program--is not well suited to wireless use. The AirCard is designed to minimize charges by disconnecting if you haven't used the network for five minutes. But Outlook is a hyperactive networker and will keep a connection open unless taken offline manually. And Outlook Express tries to download attachments, no matter how big, whenever it connects. At 20 cents to 40 cents per excess airtime minute, these programs can get expensive if you are not careful. Windows, Outlook, and Outlook Express all badly need a special wireless mode.

Verizon and Sprint both say their new data services are interim steps on the way to a much faster always-on network due in 2003. But even in its current imperfect state, the new service from Verizon is a promising sign of things to come.


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