BOOT CAMP 546 (14/10/08)

Mobile Broadband, part 2


As recently as five years ago accessing the Internet on a laptop whilst away from home or the office could be a fiendishly difficult and often impossible task, especially outside the UK. Nowadays we take it pretty much for granted that any fairly recent notebook or laptop PC will be able to tap into a fast Internet connection almost anywhere in the world. Much of the time you can, but it’s not always plain-surfing… 


Over the next couple of weeks in this short series on broadband without wires, and frontiers, we’ll be looking at the nuts and bots of setting up a connection using Wi-Fi and 3G mobile broadband ’dongles’, but first, you can save yourself a lot of time and trouble if you make a few simple preparations, before you set off on your journey.


We’ll begin some suggestions for the kit that you take with you. Don’t forget a mains adaptor plug for the country you’ll be visiting. I prefer the ‘universal’ type that works pretty well anywhere and you can get some really small and compact ones these days; pack two, if you are taking a lot of other gadgets with you.


Although the idea is to get connected without cables I wouldn’t go anywhere without my trusty 2 metre retractable Ethernet cable. You would be surprised how many hotels boast about having Wi-Fi but fail to mention that it only works in the lobby, or on the first two floors. Armed with your own Ethernet cable you’ll be able to plug directly into your room’s LAN socket, it’s quite common as many hotels installed networks in the nineties. It also comes in very handy in hotels that charge rip-off rates for Wi-Fi or Internet connection. If you have a friend or colleague with a more generous expense account you can use the cable to hook up to their laptop and share their Internet connection...


A USB cable – preferably a retractable type -- is essential. The one I use most often has a standard ‘Type A’ plug on one end and a small ‘Mini Type B’ plug on the other. These are used by a lot of gadgets, from mobile phones, 3G dongles and personal stereos to PDAs and digital cameras. In addition to using the cable for file and data transfer to and from the PC a lot of devices also use a USB cable for charging their batteries. If you are lucky, or have chosen your widgets wisely you might be able to get away with packing just one mains adaptor, for your laptop.


You can also get multi-way retractable USB cables fitted with Type A to Type B sockets (Type B is the square one, used by printers and peripherals), and Type A plug to socket extensions cables, and before you start wincing at the cost of all of these cables, I buy mine – Philips branded mind you -- at my local ‘Pound’ shop. There’s also a plentiful supply on ebay, and they’re not expensive. If you are more at home with a desktop PC and find laptop trackpads hard going I recommend taking a ‘travel mouse’ with you. You can get some really small ones (optical with scroll wheels) and yes, even ones with retractable cables. Once again ebay is the place to shop and you’ll find some really smart models for less than a fiver, and this includes express shipping from Hong Kong.


One last suggestion, at least as far as the hardware is concerned, and that’s a Wi-Fi ‘finder’. It’s a small keyring sized gizmo that tells you if there are any wireless networks in the vicinity and shows their relative signal strength. They’re real time savers – no waiting for your PC to boot up – and with prices starting at around £10 it won’t break the bank.


As for software, you would be absolutely mad to venture out without a decent anti-virus program and firewall on your laptop, and if it contains any private or sensitive files encrypt them! See the recent series on freeware for some excellent security applications.   


Unless you are going to be using a web-based email service like GMail or Hotmail (see also this week’s Top Tip), you won’t be able to send normal ‘POP3’ type emails from programs such as Outlook Express, Windows Mail, Outlook and so on. That’s because you won’t be connected to your usual ISP’s SMTP mail server and any attempt to send mail through another ISP will result in it being rejected. It needn’t’ be a problem, though. If you are using a wireless hotspot in a hotel or café simply check the provider’s Help page or ask whoever is in charge for the correct SMTP address. If you intend to use a 3G dongle obtain the address before you go and be aware that you may need to use a different SMTP address if you are roaming outside the UK.


You have to enter the SMTP address in your email program’s ‘Server’ setup menu. To save time find out where it is before you set out. In Outlook Express and Windows Mail, for example, you have to go to Tools > Accounts, select your email account, click Properties and select the Servers tab. Before you change the entry in the Outgoing mail (SMTP) box make a note of the existing entry, so you can restore it when you get back home.


Next Week – Mobile Broadband, part 3 – Wi-Fi





Generic name for any small electronic device that connects to a port (usually USB) on a PC or laptop



Post Office Protocol 3, system used to receive emails sent to Internet servers



Simple Mail Transfer Protocol - system used to send email messages to Internet servers



Web-based email services like GMail and Hotmail are ideal for travellers and you can also set some of them to ‘fetch’ messages from POP3 email accounts, and forward them on to you. The setup for the GMail ‘Fetcher’ can be found on the Accounts tab. Another useful very facility for travellers is It’s free and you can access your POP3 email accounts from any browser with a web connection simply by entering your email address and password.  


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