In the past I’ve been stuck using Nextel for mobile internet access. Nextel service seems to work ok, but it is very slow, has limited coverage, costs $79 per month, doesn’t support Bluetooth, requires third-party software to work with OS X. So when I had an opportunity to switch to a different carrier I went with T-mobile because they have Bluetooth phones and because they offer unlimited internet access for $20 per month when added to an existing cell phone plan.
After comparing prices, I found that Amazon had the best deal on phones, so I ordered it from their site. Once the phone arrived I called T-mobile and asked them to enable the VPN mobile internet. They kept trying to sell me their $29 per month service where you can get a standalone PCMCIA card or a phone without a voice plan. If you go with a phone and the $29 per month internet plan, you’ll pay $0.20 per minute for your telephone calls. I had to call back a few times before I could convince them to sell me what is listed on their website. Once they added it to my account, it took a day or so to become active.
I use a 17inch Powerbook G4. It has Bluetooth, but until recently the only device that made use of the connection was a wireless mouse. I was very impressed with how easily the Powerbook connected to the phone and synchronized all my contacts and appointments. The Address Book has a button to connect wirelessly to the phone. When it is connected you can tell the phone to dial numbers from OS X. It also lets you send and receive SMS messages through the phone using the computer’s keyboard and monitor. When an SMS message comes in you can save it to the address card of the person it came from.
Setting up the Powerbook to connect out to the internet was a little more difficult. Eventually I discovered that OS X needs to send the phone *99***2# in order to connect to the internet. I tried several different numbers like *99***1# and *99***3# as well, but I got the best results using *99***2#. I’m not sure what the number signify, but it appears that it might be connecting to different servers. Depending on what type of service you have (VPN or non-VPN) you might need different numbers.
While the service isn’t very fast, it does seem to be reliable as long as you have a good signal on the phone. The T610 isn’t known for having a particularly sensitive antenna, so I may want to get a different phone sometime in the future.
This type of setup really shines if you set your computer up to automatically connect to the internet. I spent a week in Texas without wifi access and had my computer setup to automatically connect and download email. Even though the connection wasn’t very fast, it kept me in contact with the office and I didn’t have to wait for a slow loading webpage to check email. When I left the house I took my phone with me and the computer just disconnected when it got out of range. When I came back, it automatically reconnected to the internet.
I discovered that Bluetooth can only handle one type of connection at a time. When connected to the internet, you can’t sync your contacts with the phone or use any of the SMS features. If you try to connect to the internet while the address book is connected to the phone, you’ll get a message saying that it can’t open the device. However, you can still use the phone for voice calls. Also the Powerbook can handle connecting to both the phone and the wireless mouse at the same time.
The connection is fairly slow (generally 8 or 9 kpbs), but T-mobile has a proxy that speeds things up for several protocols. Most browsers support receiving content that is compressed using gzip. For text this compression can significantly speed things up. Some sites compress their content already to save bandwidth. T-mobile’s proxy is at getmorespeed.voicestream.com on port 8080. It appears to support FTP, HTTP, HTTPS, and RTSP. OS X allows you to set your proxy settings based on the type of connection. This means you can specify that the proxy is to be used when you are on a Bluetooth connection, but ignored if you are using 802.11b or a physical ethernet connection. (The settings are in Preferences > Network > Proxies.)
The service seems to work pretty good with VPNs. I’ve also used it with Microsoft’s RDP to connect to a terminal server. It isn’t fast, but it did work enough for me to do some work over it. It also worked with Apple’s Remote Desktop software, but not as reliably. I had the best luck with command line tools. I did quite a bit of work on a remote server using SSH. There was often a lag in displaying what I had typed on the screen, but I was able to get a lot of work done anyway. If you intend to do a lot of web browsing using the connection, you might want to turn off images in your browser, so you don’t have to wait for them to download.
The main thing I use the connection for is email and it is perfect for doing that. Since the emails are cached locally, I can read and send emails without being constrained by the connection speed. Using the wireless connection means I’m not tying up someone’s phone line even if it takes a long time for my messages to download in the background.