- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Keeping in touch on the go can be a hassle. Wireless Fidelity, or Wi-Fi, makes it easier to log on in many offices, schools and public locations. It’s one of the great computing technology advances of the past 20 years.

But sometimes it’s not without a price: You can find a Wi-Fi connection for your computer in many airports, but some — including Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport — make users pay for the wireless access.

Alternatively, you can send and receive e-mail from a “smart” cell phone or wireless PDA. However, except for Research in Motion’s BlackBerry devices and the Apple IPhone, such messaging can be a hassle. If you need to browse the Internet or connect to a corporate intranet, a regular cell phone might not be up to the task.

What to do? One answer might be to reach for a USB modem, a type of device that is rapidly becoming a solution for laptop users.

Most new portables no longer have the once-ubiquitous PC Card slot. Even the more compact “Express Card” slots are becoming more of a challenge to find on some new models such as the MacBook Air. Hence, the USB modem’s increasing importance.

The market leader here appears to be Sierra Wireless, which is based near Vancouver, British Columbia.

A few months back, I looked at the firm’s USB modem for Sprint Nextel customers and that firm’s EV-DO network. Recently, Sierra Wireless sent along its new AirCard 881U, list price $249, designed for the AT&T; wireless data network.

The 881U is similar in appearance to the earlier model. But unlike the EV-DO model, the 881U can download data at speeds up to 7.2 megabits-per-second, twice the EV-DO rate. Uploads max out ahead of the earlier modem as well, topping out at 2.0 megabits per second, versus 1.8 mbps, maximum, for EV-DO users.

This is due to the 881U’s utilization of High-Speed Uplink Packet Access, or HSUPA, networks — a third-generation technology. AT&T; won’t claim provision of the top HSUPA speeds at its Web site, but offers downloads of between 600 kilobits per second and 1.4 mbps.

Uploads, the firm says, range from 500 kbps to 800 kbps.

I didn’t run stopwatch tests of the 881U, but in airport tests at BWI and Nashville International Airport, the modem and AT&T;’s service were more than sufficient to get me online, check e-mail and log off before boarding a flight.

At various urban locations, speeds varied a bit, but this is to be expected of wireless networks — no matter who the provider is, there will be some variation of signal strength depending on location.

The 881U supports computers running Microsoft Windows and the Apple Macintosh OS; you can find drivers for Linux as well. Setup involves installing the drivers and a monitoring program for Windows and Mac users; the software is on a CD-ROM for Windows users, while Mac users download theirs from the Sierra Web site.

Once installed and launched, the “Sierra Wireless Watcher” will look for your modem and sign on to the network.

Data plans are sold separately. AT&T; is offering 5,000 megabytes of monthly data transfers for $60 per month; overseas rates will vary. If you sign up for a two-year plan, discounts and a mail-in rebate lower the cost of the modem to $49, a $200 discount/rebate deal.

Read Mark Kellner’s Tech blog.

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