Cut the Cord

Surf the Internet while lounging by the pool. Hold a Web conference while on the red-eye. Check your e-mail from a cell phone. Wireless access promises to set you free from the confines of traditional workspace.

But how realistic are the claims of wireless access providers? What options do you have for accessing the Internet? Can the networks transfer data fast enough to let you work at a pace that won't send you screaming for your data port? And once you subscribe to a wireless network, how much freedom do you really have to travel and remain connected?

We took a look at the tech world's latest craze to find some answers. Here's what we found.

Take Cover(age)

You could start the quest to understand wireless access by diving in to the history of wireless data transfer, beginning with Thomas Edison and the telegraph. But chances are, you'll end up with a big headache (or asleep) and no closer to sending an e-mail on the go than when you started.

Instead, start by addressing your needs. "The biggest issue is going to be coverage," says Tim Hogan, executive director, business marketing for Cingular Wireless in Atlanta, Georgia. You need to ask yourself where you're going to be when you want to connect to your data. Are you looking for a wireless connection from a fixed point, such as your home office, or are you looking to access information from a wireless device no matter where you travel?

If you want the first, you want a wireless local area network (WLAN). That means a transmitter for Internet access is placed in a central location, and as long as you stay within a certain radius of that transmitter, you'll have access. This is the kind of access that you'd experience in a hotel. "But you're going to have pockets of wireless LANs -- it's not going to take over a large coverage area," says Hogan. Therefore, the access is only available at that hotel, or in your office, or wherever the transmitter is set up. It's not going to enable you to check your e-mail every where you travel.

If you want to be able to connect to information while you're on the go, whether at an airport, in a hotel, or in a client's office, you want mobile wireless access, and for that you need access to a wide area network (WAN). You'll need to subscribe to a wireless service provider so you can access their network of data lines.

"The network is the most important piece of any wireless communication," says Nancy Stark, executive director for Bedminster, New Jersey-based Verizon Wireless. "That's what is going to determine whether your data or your call goes through when you push the send button, and that it's going to stay connected until you push the end button or unplug." And just as a cell phone service provider might charge you extra as you travel outside of your designated plan area, a wireless data service provider might charge you to access your e-mail in certain destinations.

"You have to look at what kind of plans are out there if you're going to roam a lot," says Hogan. "You want to look at where you are going to travel, what your coverage needs are, and if that carrier has the coverage to meet those needs."

Once you've decided where you want wireless access, you're ready to move on.

The Need For Speed

Now you need to ask yourself, "What kind of information do I want to access?" Do you want full access to browse the Internet and get into your corporate network to access files, or do you intend to check e-mail and do some basic text functions?

Most business travelers are primarily looking for access to basic text functions and their e-mail. And luckily, this is the most well- developed and widely available type of service, says Hogan. "If you're really looking for data, text, messaging, and e-mail kind of stuff, that's available today and the speed isn't an issue." This basic access is available over WANs and speed isn't too much of a factor because it doesn't require much bandwidth to transfer small files such as e-mails.

"The basic data service that we have," says Stark, "is text messaging. Somebody can send a message right to your handset from either their PC or from their wireless phone, and then you can send them a text message back." This is a simple exchange of minimal data, so it can happen quickly even on a slower-speed network, and be relayed to a simple device, such as a cell phone. But it still provides a helpful business tool. "You can very discreetly receive a message if you're sitting in a meeting," notes Stark. "Maybe you're in the middle of a meeting and you're waiting for a sales figure. The person getting that for you can just text- message you and you can have the information while you're in the meeting."

But that doesn't mean providers aren't trying to im-prove upon their service. Devel-opments in sp-eed for this type of wireless data transmission are measured in generations, and most networks are currently operating a second-generation (G2) system, or a little beyond that (G2.5). "From a speed standpoint, you can expect 30 to 60 kbps," says Hogan. "That's equivalent to a fast modem on a wire line, but not high-speed access on a wire line." Stark's network is currently operating faster than a 56.6 kbps dial-up modem used for wired Internet service. "We are delivering speeds consistently in the 60 kbps range and higher, up to 144 kbps," she says.

This technology is developing quickly. "In 2003, we're going to start to roll out our G3 networks, and that's going to start to bring higher speeds," says Hogan. "You'll start to see over 100 kbps in the user experience, and that starts to get up to where DSL and other products are today, from a land line perspective."

These speeds relate to WAN systems, or mobile wireless access. "In a wireless LAN, you can have tremendous speeds," says Hogan. Wireless LANs offer true high-speed access, encompassing emerging technologies like Wi-Fi, and are better suited for browsing the Internet and accessing corporate networks. "The technology necessary for browsing or accessing larger files while mobile is not as developed or widely available as the simple data networks. The number of choices is growing, but they are options that have been stalled in the past," says Hogan.

Device Decisions

In addition to the WAN data lines' not transmitting data as quickly as wired users are accustomed to, the mobile devices utilizing them were not really designed for detailed data transmissions. "The browsing experience on phones -- based on speed and screen size and things like that -- was very limited in nature," says Hogan. But as always, technology is beginning to adapt to demands. "You're seeing a lot more devices out there that are better suited to browsing information, and you're seeing networks now come up that have faster speeds." So, your final question should be, "With which device do I plan to access information wirelessly?" Different devices are better suited to different amounts of information display.

"If you just want information and e-mail access, cell phones are coming out with larger screens," says Hogan. "It's not something you'd want to do a lot, because the device is designed for voice usage. But for someone who has the occasional need -- you need to look at a couple of messages a day, you need to get that important e-mail -- it's a good solution."

If you know you'll be using e-mail more extensively, cell phones may not be the best option. "Any PDA that has wireless access is a good means for viewing and delivering e-mail," says Hogan. And there are other choices. "You've got devices like the RIM 957 hand-held which is a data-only device and it's extremely well-suited for e-mail -- that's what it was designed for -- and messaging. Then you have other devices that have come on board late this year, the Handspring Treo being one of those that's kind of a combination of phone and PDA."

"You've got to look at what your usage habits are going to be and what makes sense to you from a convenience standpoint," says Hogan. "Some people don't want to carry multiple devices. The Handspring Treo is a great solution for somebody who just wants to carry one device. And there are other people out there who say, 'I want to carry a PDA that does data, and I'm gonna carry a phone that does voice, and I don't want to mix the two because they operate so well for what they do.' "

Putting It All Together

Once you've figured out the where, what, and how, you're ready to go. Now you just need to get it to work.

"If you've got a cell phone, and you want to access your e-mail, you basically call and sign up for our Internet service and that will give you the browsing capability from your phone," explains Hogan. Similarly, most PDAs, laptops, and newer devices have the capability for wireless built in; it's just a matter of subscribing to a service.

"But if you don't already have it built in, you'll need to get some kind of wireless access to it," adds Hogan. "And there are a couple of ways to do that. One is on PDAs: You can buy a sled or a card that would fit into it that would act as a modem." These cards that slide into a port on your PDA are also what will give a laptop wireless access if it doesn't already come equipped. Another way users are getting PDAs and laptops wireless-enabled is by using a cell phone as the modem. "You take your phone, you plug a cable into your phone, you plug the other end into your computer and bingo, you have access," explains Stark. However you accomplish it, your device must have a modem that can access a wireless network. Once the modem is in place, just subscribe to a service and you've cut the cord.