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Wireless Modem Keeps PC Plugged In

August 05, 1993|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | LAWRENCE J. MAGID is a Silicon Valley-based computer writer

My computer is beeping at me because electronic messages are pouring in. That's nothing new; I've long been communicating with others by using a modem to connect my PC to the phone system.

But today, I'm not near a phone. I'm sitting at a picnic table in a public park--with a one-pound, battery-operated wireless Mobidem modem from Ericsson GE (800-223-6336) connected to the serial port of my notebook PC.

With the Mobidem, I'm able to send and receive E-mail or submit articles from outdoors, the back of a cab or just about anywhere else in more than 200 U.S. metropolitan areas served by the system. The modem has a small antenna that transmits and receives data from ground-based radio antennas.

To use the modem, you need an E-mail account with a wireless provider such as RadioMail (800-597-6245) of San Mateo, Calif., which relies on a "packet radio network," a newfangled wireless transmission system.

The modem itself costs $775 and RadioMail is another $89 a month. That's not cheap, but there is no charge for incoming or outgoing messages. Like everything else, increased competition and technological developments should eventually drive down the price.

Federal Express and other major delivery services already have their own two-way wireless messaging systems. With the Mobidem-RadioMail package, even small companies could establish a two-way link between the office and people in the field.

Unlike cellular modems, RadioMail doesn't require a costly cellular phone call, which would be prohibitively expensive to maintain for hours on end.

I'm using RadioMail's MS-DOS software, which does the job but needs a face lift. The company also offers a connection for the Macintosh PowerBook and Hewlett Packard's hand-held 95LX and 100LX one-pound "palm-top" computers. Ericsson sells a wireless E-mail kit for $995 that includes the Mobidem, an HP95LX with E-mail software and a carrying case. The whole system weighs three pounds.

In addition to being able to communicate with RadioMail users, I have access to more than 25 million other E-mail users because RadioMail is linked to the Internet, a global network that connects just about all E-mail and on-line information services--including CompuServe, MCI Mail, America Online and, soon, Prodigy. The Internet also lets me communicate with people at thousands of companies, government agencies and universities.

I can think of many situations when I've had to hunt around for a suitable way to connect my notebook PC to a phone line. Many hotels still don't offer modular jacks for modems or fax machines. And, except at airports, it's almost impossible to find a pay phone with a modular jack. I've used an acoustic coupler, such as the Konexx Coupler from Unlimited Systems Corp. of San Diego, to connect my modem to the handset of regular phones, but that isn't 100% reliable. Besides, there are times when even a pay phone isn't available.

This system would be great for emergency service workers to exchange messages from the field. Assuming the court didn't object, it could be used by attorneys from a courtroom. Reporters could save hassles and valuable minutes by using it to send in their stories from the scene of a fire, crime, political rally, Dodger game or other disaster.

I can even envision the system being used in lieu of standard paging systems.

I've been using the modem to transfer text files from my notebook to my desktop system. While on the road, I just E-mail the articles to my MCI Mail account and download them when I get home.

There is another benefit to wireless E-mail. With public E-mail systems, you don't know about any incoming messages until you have your modem dial in and log on. That's not a problem for people who are connected to local area network-based E-mail systems at the office. Their machines usually beep to alert them to an incoming message. The same is true with RadioMail.

Whether at home or on the road, I can keep my portable PC connected to the modem and, if someone sends me a message, I hear about it immediately. As a result, I find myself using E-mail to carry on conversations. Someone will send me a message, I'll respond and, a minute or two later, I'll get another message. It saves on phone calls and, if the person has his or her system on, makes them immediately accessible.

Of course, you're under no obligation to respond immediately, especially if you're driving a car or in an important meeting. Some people, however, are E-mail fanatics. I recently got a message from someone who was driving over the George Washington Bridge from New York to New Jersey, which just goes to show that being on the cutting edge of technology doesn't necessarily mean that you have common sense.

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