The freeway was not crowded, so I glanced at the screen and checked replies coming in live from the office. A truck was just beside me and the driver looked at the device I was working on through the window but he didn't seem to understand what I was doing. The connection was still strong and I was receiving the information I needed. I called the office from my mobile phone and said, "Hello Emily. The connection is strong, and I have what I need."
This was no spy movie. This was me driving around the city with my laptop testing a Verizon Wireless' Express Network Internet service and the accompanying Sierra modem card. The test involved a simple continuous ping command sent to our Web server, and I was never disconnected during the test. Here's a brief look at what the Express Network service has to offer, the installation process, and a few productivity tips on working through such a wireless connection.
As for Verizon Wireless' competition, both Cingular Wireless and AT&T Wireless offer wireless solutions, but at the time of this article's writing they either require the use of or can only be used with a cellular phone, PDA, or e-mail/pager (such as the BlackBerry) and are priced on a per MB or KB basis. Neither company currently offers a solution that's as easy-to-use and flexible as Verizon Wireless' Express Network.
3G makes it possible
Verizon Wireless makes use of 3G technology to allow fast wireless Internet access. 3G refers to third generation, where analog cellular was first generation and digital PCS was second. For more 3G technology information, check out the National Telecommunications and Information Administration 3G Web page, the Federal Communications Commission 3G Web page, and Three-G.net.
The full potential of the 3G technology promises 2-Mbps download speed. The 3G specification claims data throughput up to 144 Kbps when moving in a vehicle, 384 Kbps when moving at pedestrian speed, and 2 Mbps when stationary. Impressive, yet no company offers it in the U.S. at its maximum rate. The Express Network is capable of data speeds bursting up to 144 Kbps and average speeds of 40 to 60 Kbps. Verizon Wireless considers this "1x" speed. For impatient types like me, the good news is that there are future plans to offer the "3x" speed service that will reach the promised 2 Mbps.
The wireless modem
Currently, Verizon Wireless offers two modem cards that can be installed in a PCMCIA slot. These are the PC3220 and the Sierra 555. Both cards are great when it comes to Web browsing, yet the PC3220 amazingly comes almost to a full stop when attempting a VPN connection. For the corporate user needing to access intranet resources via a VPN, the Sierra 555 is, in my view, the only choice.
The modem comes with an attachable antenna. Some newer models have an antenna extender so that it can be moved out of the way when typing on the keyboard.
The software CD contains two packages: The Sierra 555 AirCard drivers with its Watcher utility and compression software from Venturi Wireless. For both, you may want to consider ignoring the CD and instead downloading the latest version from the vendor's Web site.
For the modem, go to Sierra Wireless, choose Support And Download, and then look for Sierra 555 for Verizon Wireless. The drivers on some of the early CDs lack Windows XP driver certification and the installation is somewhat cumbersome, obliging the user to go through several confusing screens and prompts.
The card comes with Web browsing acceleration software provided by Venturi Wireless. Download the latest software from Venturi's Verizon Wireless customer support page. The Venturi software installs the equivalent of network sniffers, which analyze protocol packets live during traffic. If the protocol is supported (HTTP, SMTP, and the like), then Venturi takes control and redirects the traffic to Venturi servers. This allows for higher compression ratios and a voluntary quality loss for picture files. This worked very well on my Centrino-powered laptop, but may slow down a bit on older laptops. The Venturi accelerator software will not help with HTTPS or VPN traffic, so if your main goal is to connect to corporate servers, the Venturi client is not required. On the other hand, if your work involves Web browsing, multiple pages opened at the same time, and search engines, enabling the Venturi client will greatly improve your wireless productivity.
Connecting to the Web using Watcher
The Watcher Aircard utility allows you to view the signal strength and choose the carrier, and it shows traffic in kilobytes. If the Watcher displays the Ready message, you may click Connect to get to the Net. If the Watcher shows you three bars, you will surf two to three times faster than with a modem connection. You can connect without fear, even when the signal seems to be weak. In my experiences with the Sierra 555, I was able to connect satisfactorily even with a one-bar signal. For example, I took the laptop to the local indoor community pool and was able to send and receive a little more than one MB in about five minutes.
If you subscribe to the Express Network Unlimited plan, you should pay attention when you click Connect. You are allowed unlimited access only on the Express Network. If by any chance you connect using the Click 2 Net option, you will pay per minute. The Click 2 Net service is offered only to allow a connection in geographic locations where the Express Network is not available. The Click 2 Net connection is limited to 14.4 Kbps.
Perfect for VPNs
Using a VPN is no different from being on the Internet using other access services. You connect to the Internet first and to the VPN server second. Creating the VPN connections require no special settings. If you're using Microsoft's built-in VPN client, then you should consider using MS CHAP or MS CHAP V2 for authentication and ask for compression and encryption. Using clear text transmission of the passwords and unencrypted traffic is not a good idea. It isn't a good idea over the wired Internet, and even less so for wireless. Compression is recommended, and proprietary VPN clients are usually better at compressing traffic.
Once on your network, of course, all your applications should work just as they work when you dial in. In fact, the access may be faster, depending on your signal strength. The potential is three times faster than a modem.
VPN over wireless Internet access can be used for a variety of applications. You can synchronize your Outlook messages to a local offline profile. You can access the company intranet or corporate portal. You can copy files between your network folder and your laptop.
Wireless and Remote Desktop go hand-in-hand
One feature I especially like is connecting to my workplace desktop PC and pretending to be in the office by using Remote Desktop. This is done in three easy steps:
- Use the Watcher to connect to the Net.
- Use the VPN connection to get on your office network.
- Use XP's Remote Desktop to control your office computer.
Because Remote Desktop offers the following advantages, this is perhaps one of the best uses for Verizon's wireless service:
- If I lose the connection, all I have to do is reconnect, and I will find my work uninterrupted on the screen.
- I can choose to disconnect while leaving tasks running on the remote computer.
- If I lose the laptop, no work is lost and no corporate files or databases are compromised.
- Certain tasks, such as querying databases, viewing images, or opening large files can be really fast because all you exchange via the wireless connection are the KVM events (keyboard, video, and mouse). For example, e-mail attachments will open immediately because you do not transfer locally; instead, the files are open on your remotely controlled computer.
- With three or two bars of signal quality, you're connecting three times faster than with a dial-up connection.
Freedom outweighs minor problems
What are the disadvantages of using the Verizon Express Network? For one, it may be impossible to connect if you're not in the coverage area. Typing while using remote control or telnet may be intermittent due to the bursting nature of the connection. I have been disconnected at times, but rarely.
Up-to-date information on the Express Network can be obtained here. Last year, the service was priced at $100 per month. This year it dropped to $80. Although the service is available in many U.S. cities, it isn't heavily advertised and seems to grow mostly based on word of mouth—that's how I learned about it. But as speeds and reliability increase, I imagine interest will grow. Soon we may all be working from the local swimming pool.