- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2000

It's a paradox: portable computers are supposed to be, well, portable. And yet, most of us who use them are bound to a wall by two cords: one, which connects the power pack to the computer, and, often, another one hooked up to a modem or a local-area network.

Since no one has yet come up with a self-powered computer, or one you can wind up to run, the power issue will wait, somewhat, on even better battery technology and other improvements. (One of the latter is Intel Corp.'s "speed step" central processing unit technology, which runs personal computers at one speed when connected to a power supply and another for most battery-only usage. A portable using this new technology will be reviewed here shortly.)

But what about that other cord? It's needed, at least if you want to stay in touch with the rest of the world. Having a modem or network connection is not only useful, but in today's fast-paced business environment, it can be vital.

In an office or on a campus, there are several wireless communications solutions, many built around the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc.'s 802.11 standard for wireless networking. These products, as mentioned here recently, generally work well, and allow users to work seamlessly from one place to another. Plans are under way from several sources to make 802.11-compliant networks available in airports, hotels and other public venues.

There's also another wireless data system worth considering: Cellular Digital Packet Data, or CDPD, which can be used anywhere there's the appropriate cellular telephone coverage. Prices for the data service itself vary by region, but AT&T; Wireless, (www.attws.com) for example, offers an unlimited service plan at $54.95 a month. Rival wireless data firm GoAmerica Communications Corp., headquartered in Hackensack, N.J., (www.goamerica.net/html/) is selling a similar plan for $59.95 per month.

But to access CDPD service, you need a wireless network interface card. Sierra Wireless, Inc., located in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, (www.sierrawireless.com) is selling its AirCard 300 for $479, while GoAmerica, in turn, is offering the card for $100 less, plus free activation for new customers.

With a service provider selected AT&T; Wireless was used in this test and the card in hand, all that remains is installation and use of the device. The former was a relatively easy process: following instructions provided by Sierra Wireless, the card was quickly set up to work with a portable running Windows 98. I had wanted to test it on a laptop PC running Windows 2000, but the needed drivers aren't available yet. Power consumption is extremely low, meaning the device won't drain your battery.

When installed, the service works well as long as there's a cell site nearby. In Los Angeles, the unit performed very nicely: one could sit out at a cafe near Venice Beach and work away, oblivious to the location. But move inland, say to the Palm Springs area, and you can abandon all hope: there's no CDPD coverage there, yet, and thus a modem connection (and appropriate service) would be needed.

However, CDPD service is available, I'm told, in about 150 metropolitan areas, including most major cities (and convention hub Las Vegas). That means the device should be useful in most locations where business travelers congregate.

In operation, you can expect downloads in roughly the 14.4 to 19.2 kilobytes per second range. That's far slower than a 56 Kbps modem, and magnitudes slower than cable Internet or other broadband services. However, it's fast enough to retrieve a bunch of e-mails from an office server, and Web browsing isn't too onerous. (It took about 45 seconds to load the "front page" of The Washington Times' Web site using the wireless modem, for example.)

Faster and more capable wireless devices are in the offing, to be sure. Until then, the AirCard 300 is a very good example of how to cut at least one of the cords that bind us.

• Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; send e-mail to MarkKel@aol.com, or visit the writer's Web page, www.markkellner.com.

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