Getting incoming e-mail from the road is never a problem. You just configure your e-mail program on your laptop exactly as you would if you were at home. Sending mail from a remote location can be challenging, unless you're using a web-based e-mail services such as Hotmail, Yahoo Mail or a web interface from your Internet service provider (ISP).
Here's why. Outgoing mail is generally handled by the ISP you use for access, and ISPs need to be very careful about whose mail they deliver. They do this to protect themselves from being used by spammers who try to use their network to send out millions of pieces of unwanted mail.
I won't go into technical details, but Internet mail is sent via a protocol called "Simple Mail Transfer Protocol" (SMTP). ISPs operate SMTP servers, but to avoid being used as a conduit for spam they often do not allow their SMTP servers to be used by anyone who isn't logged on to their network.
That's fair enough, but it leads to a problem for those who travel or log on from cafes or other remote locations. When I'm at home, I'm logged on via my DSL service, which accepts all of my outgoing mail because the company knows I'm a subscriber.
If I weren't a subscriber, I couldn't be logged on through their network in the first place. When I'm on the road, I'm connected to someone else's network and they don't know me. So, if I try to send mail the usual way, the mail "bounces back" undelivered.
There are several solutions to this problem.
Some - but far from all - ISPs offer a workaround that allows you to "authenticate" yourself for remote access. SMTP does have a provision for ISPs, businesses or schools to allow users to send mail from a remote location and still use their servers, but not all ISPs use this provision.
If you use company or campus mail, ask your IT department for help. If you use a private ISP, contact them, but good luck. I've asked a number of ISP tech support people for help on this issue and usually find out they don't support this or don't have a clue how to do it.
Another solution is to find out the SMTP address of the remote service you're using.
A few weeks ago, I logged on to the Internet via a hotel's broadband service. The hotel had an information card that included the SMTP address of its provider. I had to spend a moment reconfiguring my e-mail program, but was able to send e-mail during my visit. Most ''WiFi'' (wireless Internet) providers have a support web site that tells you how to use their SMTP address. The trouble with this solution is that you have to reconfigure your e-mail program every time.
A solution that seems to work well is from an Australian company called FastMail (www.fastmail.fm - note it ends in .fm not .com). For a one-time fee of $14.95, FastMail will allow you to use its SMTP server for all your outgoing mail, even if it is from another account. The company offers all sorts of other services including web-based e-mail, your own ''FastMail'' e-mail address and even spam filtering, but so far I've only used the feature that allows me to send mail from anywhere I happen to be.
Unlike PC- and Mac-based SMTP servers, FastMail messages are accepted by AOL, Yahoo and, so far, all other ISPs I've tested it with. It's cheap, it's easy to use and it gets the job done.
Another option is to use a piece of software that turns your laptop into an SMTP server. Instead of sending mail through an ISP's server, your laptop sends it out directly. Macintosh OS X has its own e-mail server, as does Windows XP. The Windows XP SMTP server is a bit complicated to configure, but there are a number of low-cost programs you can download (and try for free) that make the process easy. You can find them at www.download.com by searching for ''SMTP Server.'' Mail Direct from Ocloud Software (http://www.ocloudsoft.com) (free to try, $20 to register), which is very easy to use and configure, is one of the least expensive programs.
The only problem with these PC-based SMTP servers is that a few ISPs will treat their mail as if it were suspected spam. That's because - as convenient as these programs are for legitimate users - they can also be used by spammers.
I tested Mail Direct for a couple of weeks and it worked well except when sending mail to AOL and Yahoo users. AOL rejected my mail in some cases, but not always. Yahoo users received my mail in their ''bulk'' mail folder. So far, I've only had this problem with AOL and Yahoo, but I worry that it will increase over time as companies escalate their war against spam.
If you don't want to bother with either of these solutions, you can use web-based e-mail. The two most popular web e-mail services, Hotmail and Yahoo Mail, offer free access with some limitations such as a ceiling on the amount of mail they will store on their servers before rejecting your incoming mail. They also offer relatively low-cost, fee-based services with fewer restrictions. Before you sign up with one of these services, check with your own ISP, company or school to see if they offer a web-based solution. Many do.
Another solution is to use AOL. AOL handles incoming and outgoing mail regardless of how and where you sign on as long as you're using the AOL software. But unless AOL is already your service provider, you'll have to pay a monthly fee to be an AOL member. Also, AOL's e-mail system - while fine for millions of AOL users - has its own limitations including not allowing you to use other companies' e-mail programs.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid