Cut the Cable? We're Almost Able

SAN FRANCISCO (03/20/2000) - The more wireless I get, the more wireless I realize I could be--if the many glitches ever get solved.

When your home office has three phone lines and a cable modem, people tend to think you're a wired kind of person. But recently another side of me has emerged from years of frustration: When you get right down to it, I'm really a wireless kind of guy.

I've always been a big proponent of the TV remote control; just ask my long-suffering wife. I walk around the house with my cordless phone. I was the first on my block--maybe even my state--to regularly use the infrared port on a notebook computer. I even bought the first decent Web-enabled cell phone I could lay my hands on--Sprint Corp.'s little Sanyo SCP-4000.

But the more wireless I get, the more wireless I realize I could be--if the many glitches that plague the unwired world ever get solved. Here are the things I'm hoping for:

Better coverage: No matter which network you're on, you'll find annoying coverage gaps--particularly when you're indoors. But even under the open skies, there can be problems. On one block near my home in Seattle, you can count on losing your cell phone signal--no matter whose service you use. Coverage maps tell only part of the story.

The big problem with wireless phones in this country, of course, is the fragmentation of service into incompatible systems. Unless you get special multimode phones, none of them work with one another, so AT&T's digital phones are useless on Sprint's network, and vice versa. This coverage situation may change when new networks roll out and the standards converge.

Better speed: Once you're used to even a dial-up modem, the speed of wireless systems--usually no more than 14.4 kilobits per second--seems glacial. Metricom has long promised higher speeds for its Ricochet system, but it still crawls along at about 28.8 kbps in the few areas where it's available. Cellular providers are promising "3G" (third generation) speed improvements of 384 kbps and up; they can't arrive soon enough for me.

Better interfaces: When it comes to accessing data over the ether, cell phones start with two strikes against them: the screen and the keypad. I've tried newer phones with larger screens, like the NeoPoint and Qualcomm's Palm-based PdQ, but they're too big to be convenient. One solution may be a phone module that plugs into the Handspring Visor and takes advantage of its screen. So far, though, that's just a promise.

News on the input front is better. The T9 system from Tegic Communications, recently acquired by America Online, turns a phone keypad into a keyboard by making educated guesses about which of the possible letters you mean as you tap the number keys. The little e-mail and paging devices from Motorola and Research in Motion have keyboards that make a good case for typing with your thumbs. And the clever fold-up Palm keyboard is also promising.

Better prices: Wireless hardware and services are getting cheaper, but you have to look carefully at the pricing. Motorola's snappy PageWriter 2000X goes for a stiff $400; and the monthly service fee of $35 gets you just 14,000 characters of data, beyond which you pay about a penny a character. I could run up a bill for $100 in a busy afternoon. Palm Computing offers a better deal for heavy users: an unlimited plan of $45 a month for the $450 Palm VII. There are also pretty good plans available for the various RIM pagers.

But even the cheapest of those devices would seem redundant now that I have a wireless Web phone--if it weren't for the bill. Sprint charges about twice as much for data as for voice. That's at least twice as much as it should be.

New mini-nets: Once you begin to think wireless, you'll want to use the technology for local connections, too. Prices are dropping fast for products based on the 11-megabit 802.11 local area networking standard, making wireless home networks affordable for regular consumers. And the debuting Bluetooth standard promises cheap, reliable connections between devices like your cell phone, headset, and computer at speeds up to 721 kbps.

I won't be cutting all my cables soon. But cutting back on my consumption of plastic spaghetti is one diet I could live with.

PC World Contributing Editor Stephen Manes is the cohost of Digital Duo, a series appearing on public television stations nationwide. For program information, see www.digitalduo.com.

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