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 it's sometimes not without a price: You can find a Wi-Fi
connection for your computer in many airports, but some, including
Ronald Reagan National Airport and Baltimore/Washington International
Airport, or BWI, have deals that make users pay for the wireless
access. No one, to my knowledge, has studied the cost in good will
that such digital parsimony generates.
Alternatively, you can send and receive e-mail from a "smart" cell
phone or wireless PDA. However, except for Research in Motiion's
BlackBerry devices and the Apple Inc. IPhone, such messaging is often
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
What to do? An answer might be to reach for a USB modem, a style of
device that is rapidly becoming an answer 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, reviewed here last
week. Hence, the USB modem's increasing importance.
The market leader here appears to be Sierra Wireless, which is based
near the Canadian city of Vancouver in 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
The 881U is similar in appearance to the earlier model, but here
likeness is only skin deep. 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 Mbps, 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, or 3G, wireless
technology. AT&T won't claim provision of the top HSUPA speeds at its
Web site, but offers downloads of between 600 kbps and 1.4 Mbps.
Uploads, the firm says, range from 500 and 800 kbps.
I didn't run stopwatch tests of the 881U, but in airport tests at both
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 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 5000 Mbytes 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.
If I needed constant data access, I'd consider the 881U and AT&T's
service. It's fast, can work overseas, and is ready in a flash.