My Turn

Wireless Internet on a Low-End PowerBook

Jim W - 2002.09.20

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

I'm going on a two week vacation shortly and wanted Internet access without having to depend on motel and camp cabin data ports.

After some exploration, and some research with my cellular provider, I opted to buy a cellular capable modem for my PowerBook. There are many cellular PCMCIA modems out there that will work; one of the best IMO being made by a Canadian company called Ositech.

I bought one of their modems/cellular kits for my Nokia 5100 series phone off of eBay for $70. According to coverage maps, I should be able to access about 70-80% of the U.S. via cellular.

After my research with my local Cingular office, I upgraded to a plan with free nationwide roaming, free long distance, and 3500 minutes of night/weekend airtime, for a very affordable $39.95 per month. (Most of my vacation usage will fall into the free nighttime hours). I use CompuServe 2000 for net access, and they have numbers all over the country. Even if I don't have a "local" number, the free long distance will allow calling a nearby access number.

The modem came in on a Saturday and worked beautifully on the PowerBook, although Ositech doesn't officially support Macs. The only place I've tested it so far was at my home, but it worked well here, and I have a fairly weak signal at home. The main advantage of this solution is that I can use it anywhere that has analog cell phone coverage available, which at this point is still about 70-80% of the U.S. No special service is needed from the cellular provider, just regular analog service.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that depending on signal conditions, cellular connections can be very slow - sometimes 9600 bps - and can be delicate if you are in a weak signal area. Still, it is in my opinion a very attractive alternative to wireless services that will only give you a very limited service area and mostly in large cities.

If you are concerned about the upcoming transition to digital, the company has modems available that will work on analog or digital connections. I felt that for $70 I could get my money's worth out of the deal before it becomes obsolete. The new models of this modem that are analog/digital capable start for around $150.

If you decide to give this a try, don't assume anything. Check out the capabilities of your particular phone, check with your cellular provider as to availability of analog service in the areas you want to use it in, and do some calculations as to whether the hours you need to use the service will prove to be economically attractive.

Make sure that you buy the right cellular kit for your phone, as they are by no means universal. If you are doing this on an older PowerBook, make sure you get a 16 bit PCMCIA modem. There are some newer PC Cards that require a CardBus (32 bit) slot, and these will not work with the older PowerBooks.

One other thing I will mention as to cell service in general is this: Check with your provider regularly about what calling plans are available. Cellular companies frequently update their plans to more attractive options and most will not automatically inform you of a better deal than your current plan. If you don't check it out regularly, you will almost surely be paying too much for your cell phone service whether you are using it for Net access or not.

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