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Internet access and “staying connected” has become a necessity, not a luxury. A notebook computer with a cellular modem card helps lawyers access e-mail, log in to the office network, and surf the Internet, from just about any location that has a cell tower. But before you purchase a cellular modem card and sign up for a service plan, here are some things that you should know: 1. Cellular data communications are far from perfect.They don’t work quite as well as one might hope. 2. A cellular modem will usually get the job done, butyou won’t want to use it as your primary means of data communication. A cellular modem is a device about the size of a business card that plugs into the PCMCIA slot on your notebook computer or personal digital assistant (PDA). Although some cell phones have built-in modem capability and can connect toyour PC with a USB or serial cable, the card-type cellular modem device has become the standard — much more so than the combination cell phone-modem devices. While WiFi (wireless) services require a “hotspot” to provide Internet service, a cellular modem lets you connect your mobile PC to the Internet from almost anywhere. WiFi works well, and offers significant bandwidth (speed) as compared to a cellular modem, but to connect to the Internet, you must be within several hundred feet of a WiFi access point. Cellular modem bandwidth is typically between 40 kbps to 120 kbps depending on the cell modem carrier (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) and network activity. Dial-up is at best 56 kbps, which makes cell modem connectivity as good or better than dial-up. Good news: High-speed broadband wireless access is just around the corner with Verizon Wireless’ new “BroadbandAccess” service — cellular modem service with average download speed of 300 kbps to 500 kbps. Service is only available in Washington D.C. and San Diego, but they plan to make it available in a significant portion of their nationwide network beginning in the summer of 2004. Even outside the service area of the BroadbandAccess network, with the Verizon cellular modem PC 5220 card, you can connect in many locations with the “NationalAccess” service area at speeds of 40 kbps to 60 kbps. Because it is also compatible with the BroadbandAccess services, users who travel to a BroadbandAccess area with the PC 5220 card will be able to switch to that service. AT&T Wireless, recently acquired by Cingular, offers cellular modem connectivity with its Edge service, with connection speeds of about 100 kbps to 130 kbps. Depending on your location, the AT&T service may offer a better option than Verizon’s 40 kbps to 60 kbps NationalAccess service. I evaluated the AT&T Edge service side-by-side with the Verizon NationalAccess service. Despite AT&T’s speed advantage, I selected the Verizon service because it provided a more reliable connection in my area. With AT&T I had a weak signal and slow performance. Depending on your location, the results you get may be just the opposite. It is important to check out what cellular modem carriers offer services in your area and compare their coverage maps and bandwidth. Expect to pay about $80 per month for a wireless service plan, plus about $250 for the cell modem card. But if access to e-mail is all you want, then a wireless PDA, such as a BlackBerry, is a simpler way to go. Roger Schechter is of counsel and director of technology for Grotta, Glassman & Hoffman, P.A., based in Roseland, N.J. E-mail: [email protected] .
In the market for a cell phone plan, as well? Read more advice from Small Firm Business: Keep in Touch With the Right Mobile Phone Plan

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