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Internet Access On The Run

Roman Kukin is a pretty high-tech guy. He's worked with Hewlett-Packard President (and former Compaq CEO) Michael Capellas, and the day I met him, he was providing an essential service for Gateway that enabled the PC company to hold press briefings in a downtown Manhattan hotel during this summer's PC Expo trade show. Like many workers in this industry, Kukin has Internet access while he works. He uses the Net for professional tasks and, like many of us, when he has some down time throughout the day he also uses it for personal business, such as checking on the news, the financial markets or his e-mail.

Unlike most people who access the Net from work, Kukin isn't an office worker. He's a limousine driver. I noticed the Compaq laptop neatly secured near his driver seat as he was shuttling me from my meeting at Gateway's hotel suite to the trade show at The Javits Center. Perched on his dashboard was a Novatel Sierra Wireless Serial Modem. This box, about the size of a laptop power supply, is actually an old-generation wireless modem that connects at a maximum speed of 19.2 kilobits per second.

The newer "3G" wireless networks can peak as high as 144 Kbps. To put this into context, the standard dial-up modems that come with most PCs operate at a maximum of about 50 Kbps while high-speed land-based DSL and cable modems range from between about 192 Kbps and 1,500 Kbps. Prices on this and all other wireless equipment vary widely depending on the deals offered by wireless service providers. The suggested retail price is $399, but you can typically get equipment for less if you buy it through a wireless provider.

In reality, most modems typically operate at below their highest rated speeds -- especially wireless modems that are subject to all sorts of limitations, including signal strength, which varies by location. Nevertheless, Kukin is happy with his service, which is fast enough for his purposes.

My friend Charlie Kaye, a New York broadcast news executive, has an even more portable solution that he relies on for e-mail and breaking news. Inserted in the PC Card slot of his handheld Compaq iPaq personal digital assistant is a Sierra Wireless AirCard 300 that turns his PDA into a portable Internet device. The card, which Kaye can also use in his laptop PC, uses the same $39.95 service as Kukin's larger modem.

I too have a wireless modem connected to my laptop as I write this column from the lobby of New York's Roosevelt hotel, only my device looks more like a cell phone than a modem. In fact, it is a cell phone -- LG's sleek new VX1 ($199 with activation) is one of the first cell phones to support Verizon's new 3G high-speed network. Instead of crawling along at 19.2 Kbps, I'm using Verizon's new Express Network, which, at the moment, is transferring data at 119 Kbps -- about twice the speed of a dial-up modem. This is one of those lucky moments in the day of a wireless road warrior because even though the service is rated for up to 144 Kbps, I usually get much slower performance -- typically in the range of about 40 Kbps to 60 Kbps. I've been testing the service in my recent travels, which have taken me to Houston, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., as well as here in New York and my home area of San Francisco.

But speed has its price. Verizon charges $99.99 a month for unlimited service -- nearly three times the cost of its lower-speed offering. The company also offers a metered service that combines both voice and data minutes. With this plan you get a "bucket of minutes" that you can use for voice and data. It starts at $35 a month for 150 minutes. For $100, you get 900 minutes, and so on. There is also a pricing plan based on the number of megabytes of data you send and receive. This service, which is aimed at business customers, starts at $35 for 10 MB.

The only other 3G compatible cell phone currently offered by Verizon is Kyocera 2235 ($79.95 with activation). Another option is the Sierra Wireless AirCard 555, ($299.99 with activation) that plugs into the PC Card slot on a laptop or handheld PC.

Verizon is the first U.S. cell phone company to offer 3G service, but Sprint is expected to turn on its 3G network later this summer. Other providers, including VoiceStream, Cingular and AT&T Wireless will also be offering high-speed services in the future. All carriers currently offer some type of lower-speed service that will often work with your existing cell phone along with a cable to connect to either the serial port or the USB port of your PC or Mac.

In addition to wireless service that you can get from cell phone companies, there is also a far less expensive technology called WiFi (also known as 802.11b) that is accessible from "hot spots" in some airports, coffee shops and a growing number of hotels and other locales. WiFi is not a wide-area service like cellular, but works only in specific locations. I can use my WiFi-equipped laptop, for example, at the Palo Alto Café near where I live, in Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library, in American Airlines' waiting areas at most major airports or at hundreds of Starbucks locations around the United States.

Many companies and a growing number of college campuses also operate wireless networks for their users, and you can also use the service at home by adding a WiFi access device (starting at about $150) to a home network. Most PC companies offer laptops with built-in WiFi, though, but you can add a WiFi card to a laptop or PDA for less than $100.

Some locations (such as the Palo Alto Café and New York's Bryant Park) offer the service for free while others charge a daily, hourly or monthly fee. You can access a directory of public hot spots at

So, thanks to all this wireless technology, I can remain productive wherever I am. The bad news is that I'm sitting in my hotel lobby working while my wife and daughter are out on the town, having a great time in the Big Apple. But that's a whole other story.

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."

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By Larry Magid
Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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