I spend a fair amount of time traveling, to semi-rural and rural areas as well as major cities, and I have been looking around for ways to improve the consistency of my internet connectivity. In many hotels, the per-day internet charge can be as high as $15, and averages around $10; in rural areas, there may be no high-speed internet options at all, limiting connectivity to a phone line that makes working (and sharing files, etc.) challenging at best.
Watching the deployment of the new wireless broadband services from Verizon, Sprint, and Cingular (now AT&T, again...), I checked the strength of their network in some of the places I visit consistently, as well as the prices for service. I decided to try Cingular’s Broadband Connect service, for three reasons: (1) it said it offered service in the locations I wanted; (2) it offers an unlimited usage plan, including roaming, for $60/month; and (3) it uses a GSM-compatible laptop card, meaning it should work (at greater expense, of course) in many places outside of the U.S. It is true that Cingular’s network has sometimes received less stellar reviews for speed (e.g., Walt Mossberg’s reviews in the Wall Street Journal, like this one); but I have my own history with Cingular, and needed to start somewhere.
The initial set-up process was easy enough. I have a Fujitsu P Series Lifebook, a terrific, compact machine; it runs Windows XP. The Sierra Wireless AirCard 875 came with software from Cingular to manage the connection; the installation was fine, and (sitting in NYC) the card instantly found a wireless signal and made a reasonably strong connection to the internet. The software has a little indicator to show the strength of the signal (like most cell phones); the connection wasn’t super-strong, but it worked well enough, and there were no firewall or other connection problems. All this seemed a good sign.
But sitting in the comfort of one’s home is not always the best test environment. It is what happened on the road that makes me say: don’t sign up for this service. There were three problem areas.
First, the connection service itself is weak – weak in connectivity, and weak in internet speed. In the rural areas I visited, Cingular’s service refused to connect to the internet at all, despite my having confirmed the availability of the service either through Cingular or via a roaming partner carrier. Either the card picked up no signal at all or, when it established that there was a signal, it would not connect to the network. Periodically, it gave me a message saying that the network was “busy,” with high traffic, and I should try again later; but since this message popped-up at midnight as much as 2pm, it seemed particularly curious. In major cities, and at airports, I was able to connect – but I never got a signal stronger than three “bars,” i.e., never anything approaching an excellent connection.
The second – and perhaps bigger – problem was the software. A brief list of the symptoms my otherwise-perfect laptop experienced while running Cingular’s Communication Manager software (version 184.108.40.206, to be precise):
Screen saver and “sleep” functions completely ceased to work if the software was running, even when the wireless card itself was disabled;
Closing the laptop to put it to “sleep” also ceased to work if the software was running – again, even if the wireless card itself had been disabled; the impact of this, in terms of battery life and travel, are huge;
If the program had been running, rebooting the computer was the only way to clear the screen saver and “sleep” problems – but if the software had been running, Windows would get stuck on the “Windows is shutting down...” message, forcing a hard restart;
And the kicker is that trying to remove the wireless card from the computer properly – which is to say, by using the “Safely Remove Hardware” option – also didn’t work. It seemed to make no difference if the software was running or not, or whether or not the card had been disabled: any which way, the system would hang and become unresponsive to further hardware-related requests.
And did I mention that Windows “blue-screened” several times, giving me the “physical memory dump” message and forcing a reboot? Never a good sign! Uninstalling and reinstalling the software made no difference either. It appeared to be a problem with the software, not a problem with how the software was installed on my computer.
Finally, there is Cingular’s tech support. Or should I say, there isn’t Cingular’s tech support, because they seem to take calls only between 9am and 5pm, Monday through Friday, which is usually when I am least available. In a world where people work – a lot – and often have nontraditional work hours (which seems like the point of such a traveling internet service) it seems odd that Cingular’s limits support calls to a traditional work day.
My laptop is still recovering from this experience, but stay tuned. My plan is try services from Verizon, and possibly Sprint, come spring.