March 19, 2005

(Free) Wireless Internet Via Your 3G Cell Phone

A LawTech Guru feature article by Jeffrey Beard

Wi-Fi broadband is really great, isn't it? Except when there's not a hotspot around when you need one. Or when you find it, but can't get on. What do you do on commuter trains? I've recently revisited another road warrior option worth consideration, now that third-generation 3G networks are more widely available:

A number of newer cell phones are 3G-capable, meaning they can transfer data at broadband speeds. Having faster-than-dial-up Internet access in increasingly larger cell phone coverage areas is key. If you're reasonably tech savvy, your cell phone can become a USB modem.

For more information about cellular data network providers, the recent PC Magazine article, "Wireless Without Borders: Networks for Those on the Go", is a must read. (My thanks to Brett Burney, fellow legal tech guru over at Thompson Hine, for the link.) Suffice it say, the PC Mag article validated my choice last year to sign up with Verizon Wireless. Verizon may not have been as quick to release new Treos, but their network has been phenomenal in my personal experience so far. Obviously, each person's experience may vary.

Caveat: Things change quickly in this market, and not all services are offered in all locations. It's common to get conflicting answers even from different employees of the same carrier. Do not rely upon the information presented here. It is best treated as a guide only, chronicling my individual experience, and does not provide legal advice or conclusions in any way. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the need to verify everything with your cell carrier before proceeding.

Some carriers will tell you that you absolutely need an expensive data plan to do this (possibly an additional $40-$80/month). However, like most people, I prefer using Wi-Fi connections since they're much faster. Therefore, I'm not planning to use the cell modem all that much, so this doesn't meet my needs for the cost. With some cell providers, with the right voice plans (generally the national plans), 3G phone models, cables, and software, it may be possible to have cell Internet access for free or nearly free. By this I mean some only use up airtime minutes, with no additional data plan charges. If it's used during free evening and weekend minutes, then it shouldn't cost anything extra.

So what kind of speed am I talking about? On average, with a good signal you're probably looking at 60-120kbps download speed on the low end, with 300-500kbps on the high side. It depends on the network type and location. Even at its worst, it's definitely snappier than dial-up, and believe me, it's quite usable. It sure beats the incredibly slow 14.4kbps speed common on the older 2G or 2.5G cell networks. (Been there, done that, and moved on quickly.) It's possible the highest speed networks may require a data plan subscription. But then one has to evaluate whether it's worth the added expense.

What Do I Need?

It varies with the cell provider and phone hardware, but in essence, the following is needed:

  • 3G cell phone (i.e., capable of high-speed data transfer -- the actual technology varies by network)
  • Data service activated on your cell account
  • A cell phone-to-USB adapter cable (for your PC connection)
  • USB and modem drivers (for your PC connection)
I also needed to set up the Windows Dial-Up Networking (DUN) connection(s) for dialing and logging into the cell carrier's ISP service. The nice part is that some carriers already sell the necessary cable and software in a nice package. For instance, Verizon Wireless offers the Mobile Office Kit (MOK), which installs everything needed, including the ability to sync your cell phone's address book to your laptop or desktop for backup and editing, or transfer to another phone profile.

To be candid, I had low expectations for the MOK (I've been disappointed with cell connectivity kits previously), but it was worth it. While the software is somewhat basic, it auto-detected the phone, installed the phone's Windows modem driver, and created several DUN connections. It appeared I was all set in just minutes. How often does that happen? Right -- too easy. There were a few minor problems needing resolution before I could get online.

The two new DUN connections for Verizon Wireless wouldn't log in. They had incomplete login information configured. In addition, the new VZAccess Manager program kills my Wi-Fi card utility in the system tray. Each time after running the VZAccess Manager, I need to reboot Windows to get back the Dell Wireless WLAN Utility. The latter is not a serious problem, simply because I don't need to run the Verizon access software again. The DUN connection was easily solved with a little Googling for the necessary login information (see below). With that solved, to log on, I simply use my new Windows dial-up connection. This is actually much faster than launching the Verizon software.

If your carrier doesn't provide a mobile connection kit, don't fret yet. Sites like FutureDial offer the necessary hardware and software. Also check your local Radio Shack for the same.

Treo owners may want to check out PdaNet. This program enables a Treo smartphone to be a wireless modem for your PC. (PdaNet info courtesy of Brett Burney.)

Also, for select LG, Samsung, and Sanyo phones, BitPim is an open source program that lets you sync the following items: PhoneBook, Calendar, WallPapers and RingTones. This isn't for Internet access, just another option for transferring data to/from these models to a PC. I've not tried BitPim, so I can't say how well it works. As I was looking for a way to put my own pictures and ringtones on the phone now that I have the special USB cable, this has some definite possibilities. However, it occurs to me that using two different syncing programs with the phone could open the door to new problems.

If you have a non-wireless PDA, there are several sites which sell PDA-to-cell phone cables, such as Gomadic and SupplyNet.

How Do I Get Access?

You could do what I did: Talk to your cell provider and go Googling to confirm you received good information. I've found the following links to be quite helpful:

  • Engadget: "HOW-TO: Use your CDMA cellphone as a USB modem"
    (You know this is big when Engadget posts about it, which includes tips for Sprint PCS, Verizon Wireless, and even for GSM phones on Macs and Windows.)

  • Using Verizon Cellular Phones as Modems
    (Enter all login information in lower case. In my case, I was never able to get authenticated into the slower 2G QNC network, but Express Network works great for me at twice the speed of dial-up.)

  • If you have a dial-up ISP account, it's certainly another option, but it can be painfully slow.

    When I tried this through Verizon Wireless, it resulted in a 14.4kbps connection with only 10kbps of average throughput. Even though it's a 56K dial-up account, it was clearly going through the older 2/2.5G network. This is best used as a backup option when all other Internet access is unavailable -- it's still better than nothing when you absolutely need access. Just don't plan on being in a hurry, and you may want to access various PDA portal sites, which are optimized for low data transfer (and small screens):

  • There is a LOT of confusion out there about cellular data access. All one needs to do is read this pdaPhoneHome thread for a taste of what can go wrong, especially on the billing side. It's not pretty.
Again, to avoid any surprises, I strongly recommend calling your carrier in advance to confirm exactly what's free and what's not. Cell phone hardware, software, service plans, and coverage areas change frequently. It helps tremendously if you've searched the Web in advance, so you'll know what others have done and which questions to ask.

If you happened to wonder whether this is scamming the cell phone carrier, so did I. That's why I called Verizon Wireless -- twice -- for confirmation. I let them know exactly what I wanted to do, and asked whether I would be charged for usage without a data plan subscription. I received essentially the same answer on both calls, which corresponded with what my local Verizon rep told me: Their 1X phones (short for 1XRTT, their intermediate high-speed network) are already data-enabled for the other data services (e.g., the web browser and their "Get It Now" service for downloading games, ringtones, etc.). I noticed from this comparison of cell carriers' data plans that 1XRTT networks peak around 144kbps, while the newer EV-DO networks provide faster average speeds of 300-500Kbps with bursts as high as 2.4Mbps. From my speed tests and the 1X indicator on the phone, I'm apparently using the 1X network, but it's still very good and the price is certainly right.

Other than using my airtime minutes, Verizon Wireless stated I would not be charged for using their high-speed ISP service on my LG cell phone. Nights and weekends are free. One rep told me the only catch was that without my subscribing to a monthly data plan, they are providing the data service without tech support. So if something goes wrong, I'm supposedly on my own. If so, you get what you pay for, and I can certainly live with that as a fair trade-off.

By the way, each time I've talked to a Verizon Wireless store, billing, or tech support rep, they've been very helpful, friendly, and for the most part, fairly knowledgeable. If they didn't know the answer, they either looked it up or connected me to someone who did. Believe me, I don't ask the easy questions, and they've really tried hard to answer them all and assist me.

To all this, I cheer with a very loud "Kudos!" to Verizon for providing such value-added services. I'm seriously considering canceling my dial-up ISP, which in a short time will save me more than I paid for the mobile kit. Since I have cable broadband at home, I only kept the dial-up for backup access and for traveling when all else failed.

Verizon's cell ISP connection also works with my VPN. Which lets one do cool and useful things such as wirelessly syncing a PDA to a laptop, with the laptop simultaneously connected wirelessly via Wi-Fi or a cell phone to an office network via a more secure VPN connection to sync the data. (Okay, so there's a short cable between the laptop and cell phone. But the phone is transmitting a wireless data signal.) While it's one extra cable to carry and perhaps not as sexy as Wi-Fi, it's another useful and relatively high-speed tool in my road warrior bag of tricks.

When you're on the road, having more access options is a very good thing. Doubly so when it doesn't cost anything extra per month, especially if it's just needed for backup. After all the 3G hype these past several years, it's nice to see it finally come of age and made available closer to the mainstream.

Topic(s):   Feature Articles  |  Mobile Tech & Gadgets
Posted by Jeff Beard

I am researching how I might ditch my land line and find a cell phone service that can also connect my desk top PC to the internet. I need to streamline, speed up, and reduce costs to the current method to phone services/internet services.

Posted by: Suzanne Adkisson at April 1, 2005 11:02 AM

I'm an over-the-road truck driver, with a geek background. While it's true that the connection is sometimes reported at the port speed and not the actual connection speed, it depends on the modem used. Some report the actual speed of the connection, and windows spits that out. If they only report the port speed, then that's what windows shows you.

I'm running my VX6100 on my laptop I take on the road, and believe me, the connection it faster than 56k. I ran the bandwidth tester extension in Firefox and it reported a speed of ~24k. This is faster than a 56k dialup. It's not DSL, or Wi-Fi, but it's good enuf. I had a wi-fi account, but my runs now rarely take me to a Pilot (They are the largest truckstop chain at 500 locations, and most are hot-spots via Siricomm) so the cell phone and cable is my best option. I'm not downloading anime fansubs over this, but it's fast enuf to earn my thunbs up.

Posted by: Mr_Byte at March 29, 2005 12:45 AM

It's not that you're doing anything wrong, you just need to understand how modems report their connection speeds. Here are the two main definitions:

1) Port speed:

This is the speed of the connection between your modem and the PC. So your cell phone is communicating with your PC at 230.4kbps. My LG phone reported the same thing -- it tells Windows the port speed, not the ISP connection speed.

In other words, it is the speed at which your cell phone modem is talking to your PC's serial (COM) port. Some of the cell phone-to-USB cables have a module in the middle of the cable that acts as a USB-to-serial port adapter, to fool your PC into thinking it has another serial port.

2) Connection speed:

This is the speed between your modem and the ISP, in this case, Verizon Wireless. I typically average around 120kbps of download throughput via Verizon's 1xRTT network.

Think of the connections and speeds like this:

PC -- Cell modem -- Verizon ISP

The port speed of 230kbps is between the PC and the cell modem. The connection speed of 120kbps is between the cell modem and the Verizon ISP network.

In this case, your cell phone can talk to your PC faster than the ISP connection can feed it. That's optimal, because you don't want your port speed (between the PC and the phone modem) to be the limiting factor. You generally want the port speed to be set higher than the ISP connection speed.

Now, most modems usually have a initialization string that sets whether the modem reports back its internal port speed, or the ISP speed connection.

With cell phones, it is very difficult to find this information online or via tech support (they typically never include it in the consumer manuals). Try doing some Googling for your cell phone and combinations of the phrases "init string" or "initialization string" or "port speed", etc. Also try calling Verizon's tech support -- you might get lucky. If you do, you may want to post it here to help others.

On Windows, you add the modem init string to the advanced properties of your modem (via control panel). You have to drill down, but there is a field for entering the advanced initialization strings. Just make sure you know what you're doing.

Posted by: Jeff Beard at March 25, 2005 10:32 AM

I'm still connecting through my 56k modem so I thought I'd give this a try. My 56k modem connects at 49kps and my cell phone connects at 230.4kps ... Eventhough the cell phone connection should be faster, it's not. It takes forever to load pages and sometimes pages don't even load.

I called Verizon and asked how fast their network is, they said 40-100Mbps with bursts of up to 140Mbps. Is there something I'm doing wrong here?



Posted by: Edward at March 23, 2005 08:40 PM