Fast Wireless Internet Access for Mobile Devices

By Bruce Brown  |  Posted 2003-01-17 Print this article Print

With fast data access, the remarkably small Sprint PCS Connection Card CF2031 brings the promise of 3G and can make you a happier wireless user.

In many parts of the U.S., the most pressing needs of wireless users have been better coverage and more available bandwidth for voice calls. High-speed data capability, although more highly touted, has been in less demand. But the new Sprint PCS Connection Card CF2031 ($230 street plus monthly service fee), with the slight dimensions of a Compact Flash (CF) card and the ability to provide both high data throughput and voice, may lead more people to appreciate the data side of high-speed wireless wide area networks.

The CF2031, which weighs only 1 ounce, comes with a battery pack (so it wont drain PDA batteries), a charger, a PC Card adapter for use with notebooks that take standard Type II PC Cards, and a disc with installation software. A tiny antenna retracts into the body of the CF2031 when not in use.

The previous generation of wireless data cards consisted of data-only devices, but newer networks can support voice and data on the same device. You may not want to use your notebook as a telephone (and the Sprint PCS Vision rate structure doesnt encourage it), but the capability is available and works well as a backup for a normal cell phone. Monthly service runs $40 for 20MB of data, $60 for 40MB, $80 for 70MB, and $100 for unlimited access. Voice calls cost a flat 20 cents per minute (ouch).

For its PCS Vision CDMA 1XRTT 3G (more correctly 2.5G) digital cellular service, Sprint claims a maximum throughput of 144 Kbps, about 10 times as fast as the 14.4-Kbps data transfer rate of 2G, the previous CDMA technology. According to providers of CDMA service, performance will most often be in the 40 to 60 Kbps range, roughly the speed of a 56K dial-up modem connection. Sprint uses data compression techniques that work automatically with some types of content (most notably Web content) to further raise the data rate. In our Web-surfing tests using the CF2031 in an IBM ThinkPad notebook, our transfer rate consistently hovered at about 230 Kbps. Numbers aside, the experience is quite satisfactory: Web pages dont pop up as quickly as with a DSL or cable modem, but the few delays we experienced were brief.

Voice quality was excellent on calls, but we had to provide our own ear set since the CF2031 doesnt come with one. A pull-down menu in the main application interface opens a dial pad for making calls. Theres no facility for integrating with Microsoft Outlook, and at 20 cents per minute, you wouldnt want to make this your primary device for voice calls, but the feature does work very well.

Once you start using a wireless card for fast Internet access with a mobile computer, youll have difficulty giving it up. The cost for heavy use is comparatively high but is expected to come down as usage increases and competition mounts. The platform flexibility of the Sprint PCS Connection Card CF2031 compared with regular PC Card devices is especially appealing to individuals and companies with a variety of mobile devices. The card is a terrific piece of hardware, but the lack of bundled earphones and a microphone, along with the high talk-time rates, keep it from earning a perfect score.

Bruce Brown

Bruce Brown, a PC Magazine Contributing Editor, is a former truck driver, aerobics instructor, high school English teacher, therapist, and adjunct professor (gypsy) in three different fields (Computing, Counseling, and Education) in the graduate departments of three different colleges and universities (Wesleyan University , St. Joseph College, and the University of Hartford). In the fall of 1981 he was bitten by the potentials of personal computing and conspired to leave the legitimacy of academia for a life absorbed in computer stuff. In the fall of 1982 he founded the Connecticut Computer Society and began publishing a newsletter that eventually had a (largely unpaid) circulation of 28,000.

Bruce has been a freelance writer covering personal computing hardware since 1983, the year he co-founded Soft Industries Corp., a computer consulting company, with Alfred Poor (also an ExtremeTech contributor) and Dick Ridington (a Fortune 500 consultant with Creative Realities, Inc., a Boston consulting firm). In 1988 Bruce left Soft Industries to be a full-time freelance writer. He has written for several now defunct publications including Lotus Magazine, PC Computing, PC Sources, and Computer Life as well as Computer Shopper and PC Magazine. In 1990 he and Craig Stinson co-wrote Getting the Most Out of IBM Current, an immediately remaindered work published by Brady Books.

Married to PC Magazine Contributing Editor Marge Brown, Bruce is the father of former PC Magazine Staff Editor Richard Brown (a former and currently thriving freelance writer), Liz Brown (a recent graduate of Colgate University who aspires a career in marketing and public relations), and Peter Brown (who evaluates console gaming systems and games for PC Magazine and various Websites).

Bruce can be contacted at


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