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ON THE CARDS

 

INTRO

With a mobile phone and a laptop you can surf the net, fax and e-mail anywhere in the world... Well, that’s the theory! Rick Maybury has been looking at the practicalities of mobile data communications

 

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When the first digital cellular phones appeared way back in 1993 -- it seems like an awfully long time ago -- one of the most enticing features was the promise of mobile data communications, with the facility to send and receive faxes, surf the internet and pick up e-mail, via a laptop PC. The reality has been somewhat different. Initially only a handful of phones were up to the job, moreover the additional hardware needed was expensive and could be difficult to use. Gradually that has changed, more new phones are now ‘data compatible’ but the biggest advances has been in the cost, availability and performance of PC Cards.

 

A PC Data Card is the vital link, that enables a computer to communicate with a mobile phone. These credit-card sized devices are based on a common technical standard, set by the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association or PCMCIA. The PCMCIA format was originally developed for memory expansion modules, and most laptop computers built within the past five years have one or more ‘PC Card’ slots, as they’re known nowadays. The standard has evolved to enable a wide range of peripheral devices to plug into portable PCs, including PC Data Cards for mobile phones. The one’s we’ll be looking at are all are all ‘Type II’ cards, which are 5mm thick.

 

It’s easiest to think of a PC Data Card as a type of modem, though they operate in a slightly different way to the modems used to connect a PC to a fixed phone line or ‘land-line’. However, the way in which they work is, and should, be irrelevant to the user, who simply wants the same kind of flexible communications facilities available on their desktop PC.

 

In an ideal world that would be possible, but there are several differences to be aware of. The most obvious one is the speed at which data can be sent over a mobile phone link. The basic GSM specification for data transfer is 9,600 bits per second (bps) which is a good deal slower than the current norm of between 14,800 to 33,600 bps for budget PC modems on a fixed line, and well below the maximum download speed of 56,000 bps, that is possible on the latest top-end models connected to some on-line services. Nevertheless, 9,600 bps is adequate for faxes, e-mail, word-processor files and SMS text (short message service); it only starts to be a problem with complex graphics-based material, like the internet World Wide Web, when it becomes painfully slow.

 

It is possible to speed up data transfer rates using a range of data compression systems, the commonest being MNP (Microsoft Network Protocol) and V.42bis, (or a combination of both).  Whilst compression can speed up the transfer of raw data to 33,600 bps and beyond, it doesn’t work well on data that has already been compressed (Zip files, etc.). 

 

Another difficulty with mobile data communications is the quality -- or otherwise -- of the signal. In areas of poor coverage data links can be very slow and unreliable, moreover using a mobile data system on the move is inadvisable as interruptions and fluctuations in signals strength can result in the call being dropped, and data corrupted. Normally error correction is carried out by the data card and its associated software, this is known as ‘transparent’ mode, however, some data cards can operate in a ‘non-transparent’ mode, where error checking is carried out by the network. If problems are detected the data is re-sent. The trade-off is speed, and on a weak or unreliable line, throughput can be very slow indeed.

 

If you’re sold on the idea of mobile data communications the first thing to do is make sure you have the necessary hardware. Generally speaking you don’t need an especially fast or powerful portable PC for faxing and e-mailing, you may be able to get away with a nimble 386, but it’s probably better to think in terms of a 486 or low end Pentium model, with at least 8Mb of RAM and a fair amount of free hard disc space. Needless to say it must have a vacant Type II PC card slot, and run Windows 3.X or 95.

 

A number of personal digital assistants (PDAs), palm-top or hand-held PCs also have PC Card slots, (or optional adaptors). Because of the different operating systems these products use the range of communications packages is a lot smaller, however the situation is changing. The first hand-held PCs using the new Windows CE (compact edition) operating systems are coming on to the market, most of them have PC Card slots, and communications software installed. One or two models have GSM connectivity built-in, so if you’re in the market for a pocket PC it may well be worth waiting for a few weeks longer, to see what becomes available. Owners of Apple Mac laptops are also catered for, but the choice of software is narrower.

 

Just before we went to press Nokia launched their new Cellular Data Suite software package. This is in effect a virtual modem or data card, designed to run on any Windows 95 PC or laptop. All the clever stuff is done in software, with the phone connecting to the PC via the serial port. Fax and data operate at up to 9,600 bps, and it comes complete with a connecting cable for the phone. The retail price is likely to be in the region of £99, which compares very favourably with current hardware solutions. Unfortunately it was not possible to test the package in time for this issue, but if it lives up to expectations it could be a serious alternative to a PC Data cards. 

 

Next the phone. The critical feature is obviously data compatibility, but we also need to say a word or two about the networks. Thus far we have only mentioned the GSM systems operated by Cellnet and Vodaphone, but there are two other digital networks in the UK -- Orange and One-2-One. These work on a higher frequency band and use the PCN system, which also support data communications. However, there’s a few points to bear in mind. The choice of data compatible phones for both PCN networks is much smaller than GSM. Secondly coverage. Orange is catching up with Cellnet and Vodaphone but there are still some sizeable gaps around the country; One-2-One has even more ground to make up and probably isn’t worth considering if you live any distance from one of the major conurbations, or you intend to travel around a lot.

 

Outside the UK the picture is bleaker still. Cellnet and Vodaphone have full or partial fax and data services with between a third and half of the countries they have roaming agreements with, but coverage can still be patchy outside of large cities, check with your service provider for the latest details. You can more or less forget overseas data communications with Orange and One-2-One at the moment, though both companies say they’re working on it. Orange are making good progress and may be worth considering within the next year or so.

 

Now we come to the actual cards. We have elected to look at PC Data cards offered by the major phone manufacturers, rather than try to list all of the available products. That’s something we’re considering for a future issue, when we’ve had the chance to figure out an easy way to present all of the permutations and compatibility issues. If you’re in the market for a PC Data card our advice is to look at the phone manufacturer’s wares first, at least you know they’re going to work with the phone. There’s certainly nothing wrong with accessory company’s cards, a lot of them come out of the same factories as manufacturers own models, and they’re often cheaper, but it’s a good idea to check, and then double check compatibility, before you part with the plastic.

 

Finally, on a general note speed is obviously a consideration, if you’re planning to use the data card  for anything other than basic fax and e-mail, but remember the maximum quoted speeds are only rarely attainable, and that’s under ideal conditions. Twin cards, with both mobile phone and fixed-line connectivity are well worth thinking about, especially if you’re likely to be travelling abroad, where you can’t rely on a local mobile data service being available.

 

ERICSSON

 

Make/model:            DC23

Type:                GSM/PCN data card                

Phones:            318, 388 and 337 (fax not possible on 337)

Street price:            £350

Fax speed:            9,600 bps

Data speed:            38,400 bps (with compression)

Software:            Trio DataFax Lite

 

Make/model:            DC33

Type:                twin GSM/PCN/fixed-line data card

Phones:            318, 388 and 337 (fax not possible on 337)

Street price:            £470

Fax speed:            9600 bps

Data speed:            38,400 bps (with compression), 192,000 bps (land-line with compression)

Software:            Trio DataFax Lite

Contact:            Ericsson Consumer Helpline (0990) 237237

 

MITSUBISHI

 

Make/model:            FZ-1405078 GSM Data Card

Type:                GSM/PCN data Card

Phones:            MT20D,  MT30

Street price:            £350

Fax speed:            9600 bps

Data speed:            14,400 (with compression)

Software:            BVRP Fax Tools

Contact:            Mitsubishi (01707) 278621

 

 

MOTOROLA

 

Make/model:            CELLect 1+

Type:                GSM/PCN data card and phone holder bracket for laptop PC

Phones:            all data compatible models (specify model for correct lead)

Street price:            £250

Fax speed:            9600 bps

Data speed:            9600 bps

Software:            BVRP Phone Tools

 

Make/model:            CELLect 2

Phones:            all data compatible models (specify model for correct lead)

Type:                twin GSM/PCN/fixed-line data card and phone holder bracket for laptop PC

Street price:            £300

Fax speed:            9600 bps

Data speed:            33,600 bps (with compression), 14,800 bps (fixed-line)

Software:            BVRP Phone Tools

 

Make/model:            CELLect 3

Phones:            all data compatible models (specify model for correct lead)

Type:                twin GSM/PCN/fixed-line data card and phone holder bracket for laptop PC

Street price:            £386

Fax speed:            9600 bps

Data speed:            33,600 bps (GSM and land-line)

Software:             BVRP Phone Tools

 

Contact: Motorola (01256) 316800

 

NOKIA

Make/model:            Cellular Data Card DTP-2

Phones:            all data compatible phones (specify model for correct lead)

Type:                GSM/PCN data card

Street price:            £300

Fax speed:            9600 bps

Data speed:            9600 bps

Software:            Set-up disc,

 

Make/model:            Cellular Data Suite

Phones:            all data compatible phones (specify model for correct lead)

Type                 GSM/PCN data card emulation software

PC                    any Windows 95 PC

Street price:            £100

Fax speed:            9600 bps

Data speed:            9600 bps

Software:            SMS, Fax and utilities

Contact:            Nokia Mobile Phones (0990) 002110

PHILIPS

 

Make/model:            Mobile Data Card

Phones:            Fizz, Spark and GSM Genie

Type                 GSM/PCN data Card

Street price:            £130

Fax speed:            9600 bps

Data speed:            9600 bps

Software:            Mobile Data Communications Suite

 

Make/model:            Twin Data Card

Phones:            Fizz, Spark and GSM Genie

Type:                twin GSM/PCN/fixed-line data card

Street price:            £230

Fax speed:            9600 bps (GSM), 14,400 bps (fixed line)

Data speed:            38,400 bps (with V.42bis compression, fixed line)

Software:            Mobile Data Communications Suite

Contact Philips Consumer Communications 0645 282828

 

 

SONY

 

Make/model:            Mobile Connector QN010PCM

Type:                GSM/PCN data card

Phones:            DX1000

Street price:            £300

Fax speed:            9600 bps

Data speed:            9600 bps

Software:            Trio DataFax Lite, Winfax Lite       

 

Coming soon for the CM-Z1

Make/model             QN022PCM

Type                 GSM/PCN data card

Phones CM-Z1, DX1000

Street Price            £TBA

Fax Speed             9600 bps

Data Speed             TBA (V34 compression)

Software             TBA

Contact:            Sony Customer Information (0990) 111999

 

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BUNDLED SOFTWARE

Most PC Data Cards outfits include one or more communications software applications, usually for fax SMS and data, and almost always for the IBM PC; MAC versions may be available but you’ll normally have to ask. They vary quite widely in sophistication and flexibility, however, as far as the PC is concerned, the data card is simply a modem, so you should be able to use your existing comms software. Settings will almost certainly need re-configuring, particularly if the PC has been used with a normal modem. Some applications may require additional drivers or patches; it’s always worth checking the ‘Readme’ file that should be on the installation and set-up diskettes that accompany most cards.

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1997 1806

 

 


 

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