Taking the line out of 'online'
If your department has remote users who need to connect to the Internet
or your local-area network but aren't always in a location where a telephone
jack is available, you'll want to take a look at the AirCard 300 by Sierra
The AirCard 300 is a network interface card for laptop and handheld
computers that allows users to go online via a wireless cellular network.
The card works on systems that support Type II PC Cards and that use Microsoft
Corp.'s Windows 95, 98, NT or CE operating systems.
Before it can be used, the AirCard 300 requires you to sign up for service
with a wireless cellular provider that uses Cellular Digital Packet Data
(CDPD) networking technology, which is fairly common.
Once service is in place, the AirCard 300 is capable of transmitting
data via the cellular network at about 19 kilobits/sec. That means you will
have to wait a little longer than at your desktop for Web pages to appear
or e-mail to be sent. We did encounter downtime when waiting for pages with
lots of graphics to download.
If a relatively slow connection isn't a deal-killer — and remember that
those transmission rates are a result of CDPD service, not the AirCard — you'll find the product flexible and easy to use. During testing, the AirCard
performed flawlessly. When we were done with a session, we left the card
in the computer and carried it with us. All we had to do at our next location
was boot up the computer, attach the antenna, and launch our Web browser
to begin working on the Internet again.
With just a few changes in Windows configuration files, systems administrators
can configure the AirCard to connect to a LAN instead of the Internet. Administrators
and security-conscious users will be glad to know that CDPD networks use
RSA public-key encryption, the same type of encryption used for many e-commerce
The AirCard 300 is small and light, consisting only of a standard PC
Card and an extendible antenna that plugs into the end of the card. Even
when extended, the antenna rises only four inches and remains conveniently
out of the way if you are typing or need to close your laptop or handheld
device. But be careful — the antenna is slightly fragile when it is extended.
AirCard 300 installs with additional software that enables users to
monitor connections and trouble-shoot problems that may occur, such as interruptions
in cellular service. The AirCard Watcher and ToolKit assisted us in diagnosing
minor troubles we encountered after installation. (Again, these difficulties
were all CDPD service-related and were not problems with the AirCard or
Aside from slower download times, the other noticeable drawback to the
AirCard was its slight penchant for draining battery power. We disconnected
our laptop AC power supply and actively surfed the Internet using a fully
charged battery. The battery life decreased faster than it would have under
The situation is even worse for users of smaller handheld PCs running
Windows CE. The batteries in those devices take a much bigger hit from add-on
devices such as the AirCard than do the more powerful batteries in laptop
In AirCard's defense, Sierra Wireless does incorporate some advanced
power-management techniques to minimize battery drain. For example, the
card enters a sleep mode that draws less power if you are not actively using
it for a period of time. Additionally, there is an optional power pack available
that provides 16 hours of AirCard power for handheld PC users.
Overall, the AirCard 300 is a quality product that is worth a look for agencies
that need to mobilize their users but need them to remain connected to the
Internet or a LAN.