Connecting to the Internet: Orange High Speed Data Card

GPRS may be on the horizon, but is it possible to get a decent Internet connection from your mobile right now? John Sabine...

GPRS may be on the horizon, but is it possible to get a decent Internet connection from your mobile right now? John Sabine reports

Internet access on the move is a perennial problem. It's impossible to hook your laptop up to a phone point on a train - it can be difficult enough in some hotel rooms - and GSM data rates of just 9,600bps are a touch paltry for anything more sophisticated than checking your email.

Nokia supplies one possible answer to Orange users, in the form of a stretched PC Card with a flip-up aerial. It's got a slot for a standard mobile phone SIM, draws power from the PC Card socket, and lets you access the Web at speeds of up to 28.8kbps.

While glacial compared to the data rates you'll be used to across a LAN, that's not too far off dial-up speeds unless you're accustomed to a top-notch modem and perfect line conditions. It's certainly fast enough to make finding information on the Net - or checking email, or linking to a corporate intranet - a viable mobile activity.

Setting the card itself up is simple. It's supplied with a software suite that includes a status monitor: this more or less takes the place of the mobile phone display, and even confirms your connection speed. Other features allow you to manage contacts and the SIM card phone book, while it's much easier sending an SMS from your notebook keyboard than from a phone handset.

You can even set up a voice call through your notebook, though this suite won't actually connect you unless you've got the optional headset plugged in. In any case, talking into a headset connected to your PC is possibly even more ridiculous than talking into a normal hands-free kit: we don't see this being an especially popular add-on.

Once fully installed, the card phone is seen just like any other modem by Windows. You shouldn't need to alter any dialup settings beyond telling your browser which modem to use, and that done, connection should just happen using your standard dial-up number. Some ISPs, notably Demon, provide a mobile-specific number: this can be worthwhile, but is far from critical.

Because GSM communications stacks have much in common with ISDN, it is possible to set up your calls as ISDN, providing that this is supported by your ISP. While this has no benefits in terms of data rate, it offers faster call setup (typically just a few seconds rather than the 20 or 30 needed to initiate a modem connection), a useful benefit.

It's a refreshing change to connect to the Internet at speeds up to three times as fast as traditional mobile links. Orange achieves this using a technique known as High Speed Circuit Switched Data (HSCSD). Essentially, this switches off some of the GSM control codes, freeing bandwidth to allow connection at 14,400bps in place of 9,600. Bonding up to four GSM timeslots together then gives a data rate of 28.8kbps in each direction.

In theory, it's possible to keep one slot for the upstream (giving upload speeds of 14,400bps) and bond the remaining three for the downstream connection, offering download speeds of 43,200bps. Unfortunately, Orange has chosen to only implement HSCSD services symmetrically, slightly throttling the potential data rates.

In order to achieve these speeds (currently Orange is the only UK network to support them) you'll need to have High Speed Data Services activated on your account. This is a fiver a month on top of your normal subscription, but call charges are nearly normal (non-geographic numbers are charged rather than coming from your inclusive minutes) - not a bad deal considering you're tying up at least two GSM time slots in the cell you happen to be in.

Although at £299 it's an expensive purchase, the High Speed Data Card is worthwhile if you have a real need to access Internet information or largish files when on the move. While running costs are manageable and it's simple to use, it's certainly not for everyone.

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