Going Wireless Without Having to Buy a Latte

Times Staff Writer

To get a high-speed, wireless Internet connection out in the field, you generally have to head for one of the coffee shops, bookstores or hotel lobbies offering Wi-Fi. Or you can sneak around with a Wi-Fi sniffer, hoping to find a private wireless connection you can hop onto for a bit -- but, of course, I've never done anything like that.

Now there is an alternative to running or sneaking around. EV-DO is an emerging technology that uses a cellphone network to make wireless broadband connections from most populated areas in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties.

EV-DO -- which stands for Evolution Data Optimized or Evolution Data Only, depending on the source -- is one of the long-awaited, so-called 3G technologies that can carry data via a cellular network at high speeds. It was designed for use by wireless companies, such as Verizon Wireless and Sprint Corp., that use the CDMA-type cell network technology.

At its best, EV-DO allows you to get online, at broadband speeds, from a park, library or mall. Or even a train.

The Pacific Surfliner left Union Station in downtown Los Angeles right on time on a recent Saturday afternoon, heading north to Santa Barbara and beyond. My plan was to test EV-DO service -- currently offered locally only by Verizon Wireless -- from my business-class seat, which had an electrical outlet to power a laptop.

With an EV-DO card -- which sports a mini-antenna to access the service -- in the PC card slot of the laptop, I was able to access the Internet right away at speeds of about 750 kilobytes per second. That's on a par with a good if not spectacular DSL or cable modem connection.

It was certainly good enough for most Internet functions. By the time I got to Glendale I had checked e-mail, read an online article about a digital camera and bought a song (call me sentimental, but Luther Vandross had just died so I got "Dance with My Father") from iTunes.

The connection speed ranged from 600 kbps to 1,000 kbps, as measured on CNET Networks Inc.'s online Broadband Meter, as we continued through the San Fernando Valley.

But there were dropouts. Near the stop at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, EV-DO quit a couple of times (much like cellphone voice service hits dead zones) and Verizon's far slower national broadband service automatically took over, at speeds of around 150 kbps or less. That's good enough for text e-mail and some other low-speed tasks, but when I was downloading a file or waiting for a graphic-rich Web page to pop up, I generally had to restart the process after EV-DO speed was restored.

A bother, but not bad considering I had wireless Internet access without feeling guilty that I didn't buy a cup of overpriced coffee.

Just north of Chatsworth, in the Santa Susana Mountains on the way to Simi Valley, EV-DO met its match. It made it through the first of two tunnels in this hilly area, but then came up against a bit of railroad history: Tunnel 26, as it was known when it was dug in the 1890s to provide a link for coastal railroad service into Southern California. The wireless data services shut down partway into the 1 1/3 -mile long tunnel and couldn't be used until the train was back in the open. It was a bit like "quiet time" in a submarine.

Around Oxnard, I hit a trip-high rate of 1,350 kbps. At the time, I was chatting via AOL Instant Messenger with a woodworker who designs and builds custom furniture on Vancouver Island. As we IM'd, I also checked out pictures of his furniture on the Web, bought a book for a friend's birthday and answered e-mail. All while listening to Otto's Baroque Musick, an online radio station based in Hong Kong.

It was wireless heaven, on the move, but it was not to last. When I hit the Carpinteria area, EV-DO died. The service has not yet made it to Santa Barbara County.

EV-DO first became available in 2003 in San Diego and Washington, but has been slow to roll out across the country because it requires an equipment change in each cell tower of the area to be covered. Verizon, which now has EV-DO service in 42 cities, has said it will be available to half the country's population by the end of the year.

The cost to consumers for the service is $80 a month, with a one-year commitment, plus a one-time charge of about $150 for a PC card. (A rebate program currently reduces the cost of the card to about $50).

The cards are being marketed for Windows-equipped laptops only, but the enterprising folks at the EVDOinfo forum have come up with a free, downloadable installer that will allow some cards to work in Apple PowerBooks. Installation is tricky -- see www.evdoinfo.com for details.

Among the main cards available are the Kyocera KPC650 and the Novotel Wireless V620. In tests, they got comparable speeds both in The Times office and out in the field.

Sprint launched its EV-DO service just this month, beginning with airports, and said it would be available in 60 metropolitan areas by early next year.

Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile Inc. have their own 3G technology: UMTS. It won't be available in Los Angeles until at least next year. In the meantime Cingular offers its EDGE service for data, but it's not as fast.

To sum up, broadband wireless at high speeds via cell service is spotty so far and relatively expensive. But it works, and it's spreading.

How long before there's nowhere to run from wireless?


David Colker can be reached at technopolis@latimes.com. Previous columns can be found at latimes.com/technopolis.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World