BOOT CAMP 545 (07/10/08)

Mobile Broadband, part 1


I suspect that quite a few of you took a laptop on holiday with you this year, and if you didn’t you would have certainly been aware of the many who did, tapping away in airport departure lounges, hotels, bars and cafes. Whilst some are only too happy to take a well-earned break from their inboxes, there’s a lot to be said for taking the web with you on your travels.


Not only will you be able to keep on top of your messages – there are few things more depressing than returning to a huge stack of unread emails – you’ll be able to use it to search out local places of interest, book tickets online and view, save, organise or send your digital photographs to friends and family. If you still need convincing then how about using Skype’s ‘Dial Out’ feature to reserve a table in a restaurant or phone the folks back home, for a tiny fraction of what it costs on a mobile or hotel phone. What’s more, with tiny and very capable machines now selling for less than £200 (see this week’s Top Tip), packing a laptop is no longer a burden on the pocket or baggage allowance.


No prizes for guessing the subject of the next few episodes of Boot Camp and I consider myself to be something of a pioneer in the field of mobile data communications, though for a very long time my efforts were spectacularly unsuccessful.


Many, many years ago, long before the web was even a glimmer, let alone a twinkle in Sir Tim Berner-Lee’s eyes, I made several attempts to exchange simple text messages with like-minded geeks using portable Ham radio equipment and RTTY (Radio Teletype) terminals. Occasionally a letter and sometimes a whole word got through but as a means of reliably exchanging useful amounts of data whilst on the move it left much to be desired.


It wasn’t until the late 1980s that I eventually cracked it. Armed with a small suitcase full of equipment that included a hefty ‘luggable’ PC, a brick-sized analogue cellphone, a heavily customised acoustic coupler and a dial-up modem I managed to send a short article to a ‘Bulletin Board’ belonging to a long since deceased magazine in London, from a hotel room in Birmingham. It was quite an impressive feat back then but the truth was it would have been a much quicker and a lot easier to file the copy by carrier pigeon, even so, it was a tantalising taste of things to come. 


In fact it took rather longer than I had hoped for the technology to mature to the point where I could trust it and not have to send a backup copy of the file by post. The digital GSM cellphone system introduced in the mid 90s made life a little easier, nevertheless, over the years I have wasted countless hours trying to get laptops to communicate with mobile phones and the Internet, via cables, infra-red adaptors, Bluetooth devices, wet pieces of string, and a lot of very flaky software. Even when two-way communications from foreign parts were established the transfer of data was painfully slow and it produced some really scary phone bills.


The first real improvement in the fortunes of laptop users came with the introduction of Wi-Fi and broadband and it’s worth remembering that these have only been viable and readily accessible consumer technologies for the past five or six years.


Mobile phones have also improved and after the false start and rash promises made by proponents of the 2.5G system, it has finally started to make sense with 3G mobile phone networks and HSDPA technology.


Fortunately, these days all you need to know is that armed with a reasonably recent laptop with a built-in or plug-in Wi-Fi adaptor you stand a very fair chance of being able to access your emails, and the Internet, almost anywhere in the civilised world, which basically means any country with an airport, Holiday Inn, Starbucks or McDonalds.


That’s just the start, in a few years we’ll be able to throw off the shackles of short-range wireless links and surf the web, at quite respectable broadband speeds, using 3G mobile phone networks. You can already in parts of the UK and in a growing number of countries around the world. For the moment, though, mobile broadband ‘roaming’ outside the UK can be a costly business, and stories of unwary holidaymakers coming home to bills of thousands of pounds are not uncommon. It is getting cheaper, though but if you can’t wait, over the next couple of weeks I’ll have some useful hints and tips that can dramatically reduce the cost of 3G mobile broadband abroad. 


There is also a third way, though I’m only mentioning Internet access via satellite in passing, as it remains an eye-wateringly expensive technology. Until very recently you also needed to haul a fair amount of kit around with you, and be adept at locating communications satellites in geosyncronous orbit, 36,000km above the Earth. It’s getting easier and compact terminals using Inmarsat’s BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) are now available but it will be a very long time before it becomes a viable option for the average traveller.


Next Week – Mobile Broadband, part 2





Basically a microphone and speaker, placed next to the earpiece and mouthpiece of a telephone, used to send and receive the audible tones from dial-up modems



Pre-Internet communications system and software that allows computers to connect, upload and download data files over telephone networks



High-Speed Downlink Packet Access, communications protocol used by 3G mobile phones for data transfer at speeds of up to 14.4Mbits/second (though currently 1.6 and 3.6Mbit/s speeds are typical)



In the last nine months a new generation of ultra low cost mini notebook machines have come onto the market. The cheapest, so far, at just £99 is the Elonex One, which has a 7-inch screen, comes with a built-in wireless adaptor and uses the Linux operating system. It’s fairly basic but adequate for mobile emailing and web surfing. The Asus Eee PC is where it all began and this range of machines with 7 and 9 and 10.2-inch screens run Windows and Linux; prices for entry level models currently start at under £150. The latest arrival is the Acer Aspire One, another Intel based machine with a 9-inch screen, onboard wi-fi, Linux or Windows and costing less than £200.



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