Connect PC to cell phone: Simple, right? Not!

Here was my latest wireless plan: Using Ositech's USB cable, I'd connect my PC to my Nextel cell phone and dial into my ISP. In true plug-and-pray fashion, another good wireless idea bites the dust.

In response to my accounts of the many trials, tribulations, and sometimes high cost of trying to get my wireless gear working smoothly, several ZDNet readers suggested that I consider the old tortoise and hare trick. "Try a slower connection," they told me. "Use your cell phone as a regular modem."

Instead of trying one of the expensive, high speed 2.5G or 3G networks that overpromise and underdeliver on performance, readers suggested, I should connect my PC to my cell phone and dial in to my ISP --- just as I would over a standard modem. Since the connection looks like a voice call to my cell service provider (Nextel), the cost is usually nothing because I rarely use all the minutes on my voice plan anyway. The downside is that a data call over a wireless voice line is going to be very slow compared to the speeds attained with one of the higher speed wireless WANs based on CDMA 1xRTT or GPRS technologies.

Cost savings aside, advocates of this approach argue that you're better off trading speed for stability (rather than the other way around) --- provided, of course, that you're not using performance-sensitive applications. For example, browsing the Web at 19.2 kbps (the typical connection speed you get over a wireless voice line) is downright painful.

Another argument for this approach is that having a slower but more reliable option available to you might make for a good backup plan in the event that your higher speed solution (should you have one) isn't working when you desperately need to connect.

With so many people telling me to keep it simple, and with Ositech recommending its special USB-based PC-to-cell phone connector, I decided to give it a go. Things did not go well.

Using Ositech's USB Cellular Data Cable with Cell Phone Charger requires the installation of special software that takes advantage of one of the connector's unique features. Since it is USB-based, and USB can act as a power source to any USB-device, the phone can use the connector to draw power from the computer in addition to handling serial modem communications. Now, if your notebook is running off of its battery, you might want to throttle back the power draw . Ositech provides a management applet that allows you to make adjustments to the power provision capability

I had to run the installation several times before it completed successfully. On each of the unsuccessful attempts, the installation software refused to proceed until it detected the presence of my Nextel i95cl phone. On about the fourth try, Windows detected the phone and the software installation completed.

With the software and the phone both ready, I attempted to complete data connection via iPASS, my dial-up ISP. But a strange thing started to happen. Every time I tried to connect the phone to the computer, the signal strength (displayed in bars) would drop by about 50 percent. A two- or three-bar signal would drop to zero or a "No Service" indication on the phone, and a five-bar signal would drop to somewhere between one and three bars.

The problem had Ositech's technical support stumped. The more I experimented, the more I suspected that the presence of my notebook computer --- a 366 MHz IBM ThinkPad 570 --- was wreaking havoc with the cellular signal. Just holding the phone next to the ThinkPad without using the connector at all caused a precipitous drop in signal strength. Then, with Ositech's connector plugged into my USB port, I didn't even have to plug the other end into the phone to reproduce the interference. The cable started acting like an antenna; simply waving it by the phone caused the signal to drop.

Unfortunately, my first choice of test environments (my house) gets only two or three bars from the Nextel network. The electrical interference problem made the entire wireless setup useless from my home. Determined to get a connection, I hopped in my car and, with my notebook in the passenger seat, I drove around until I found a solid five-bar signal. As I expected, plugging the cable in (or just putting it near the phone) caused the five bars to drop to two--still enough to make a connection.

From iPASS' dial-up networking client, I changed modems to "Standard Wireless Modem" and dialed a local point of presence (POP). Within about 45 seconds, Windows' dial-up networking utility indicated that I was connected at 19.2 kbps and the iPASS client let me know that I had been authenticated on the network --proving that some data was getting through.

But that's where the party ended. The phone displayed no visible signs that it was in use by the computer, and I was unable to get anything to work at 19.2 kbps. I tried the Web, FTP, and even simply pinging a couple of IP addresses that I know to be alive. Hey, it's just ping. Everything timed out. Ositech's explanation for this is that not all ISPs support connections as slow as 19.2 kbps. I checked with iPASS and they were pretty sure that their POPs supported 19.2 kbps, but, as of this writing, they had not gotten back to me with a definitive answer.

So, in true plug-and-pray fashion, another good wireless idea bites the dust. I'm still not sure why. With respect to the electrical interference problem, Ositech claims that their connector passed all the FCC requirements. On the other hand, the technician I spoke to said I was the only one he knew of who was trying the connector with a Nextel phone. Apparently, Ositech has enjoyed great success with other phones.

Would I have found success with another phone? Perhaps. But this latest chapter in my woeful wireless saga serves as a reminder of the challenges facing users of new technology, especially in the wireless space. We've come a long way since 2400 baud modems and phone couplers, but early adopters may still need to plug and pray before things work smoothly.

Coming up
Wireless that Works: Stay tuned for the first in a year-long series of Webcasts that lays out the wireless landscape now and looks at where it's headed, so you can better understand how to chart your course. During our first Webcast, which debuts February 24, a camera crew follows me around a trade show as I attempt to do my job without wires.


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