Rugged laptop comes with wireless modem

Amrel Systems Inc. and Novatel Wireless Inc. have teamed up to put wireless modems inside rugged laptop computers, which the companies say will give federal users the power to share data more easily when working in the field.

The partnership, which materialized this year, has produced a Novatel modem and antenna built directly into an Amrel laptop, rather than plugged into the side of the system.

The marriage of the wireless modem with the ruggedized laptop will enable users to transmit data over existing cellular communications networks when working in rugged conditions, such as in military vehicles, near bodies of water or in woodlands, said Richard Lane, Amrel's director of strategic market business development.

The combination in effect gives users a wide-area network because computer users in the field do not have to wait to return to the office to share information with co-workers. And having the modem on the inside of the ruggedized laptop reduces the chance that it will be broken, Lane said.

Mona Thomas, Novatel's marketing and media relations manager, said users should be able to send data over cellular networks if the users are no more than 50 miles from a cellular communications tower.The Novatel modem transmits data in a format known as cellular digital packet data (CDPD), which sends data in bursts or "packets" over cellular networks and uses Internet Protocol, enabling data to be tracked using IP addresses.

For Novatel, the partnership with Amrel should give the wireless company an entree into the federal market. "It moves us into public safety markets, the federal market—any market where a rugged laptop is useful," Thomas said.

Already, Amrel—which sells its laptops for close to $5,000 each—has established a beachhead with clients such as the Defense Department and the Energy Department.

Staff Sgt. Steve Rhoads, a member of the 1st Marine Division Combat Camera Unit at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, said his organization has been using Amrel laptops to record and wirelessly transmit aerial photography taken during intelligence training missions. "The standard IBM or Macintosh laptop or any other laptop that we've seen hasn't been durable enough to stand up in the field," he said.

But Rhoads said his unit does not transmit image data from an aircraft to a ground station using the Novatel wireless modem. Instead, the unit plugs a Marine Corps radio into the laptop via a "data controller"—a device Rhoads compared to an external laptop modem card. He said that for his unit, using a cellular communications network is not a "realistic situation" in the field because some training grounds or battlefields are nowhere near cellular networks and because CDPD operates over public networks rather than secure military networks.

For federal users who want to send data from the field and who do not mind sending it over public networks, CDPD may be the solution. But it is only one solution, observers said. Not all communications companies offer CDPD services.

"There are a number of questions that an end user needs to answer before they determine what wireless data solution...to buy," said Mark Desautels, managing director of the Wireless Data Forum, a trade association. "If you need a solution for an area that is not covered by CDPD, then that is not what you would want to buy."

Amrel is making Novatel CDPD modems available in its Rocky II line of mobile computers. This month, Amrel released the latest version of the Rocky II, the Rocky II Plus, built to specifications under the Army's Portable-2 contract.

The two companies also will sell their products through the government arm of CDW Computer Centers Inc.

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