Get online with a cell phone

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is an excerpt from Global Mobile: Connecting without Walls, Wires, or Borders , by Fred Johnson (2005; reprinted by permission of Pearson Education and Peachpit Press).

The best way to access the Internet when you’re on the road is to connect your laptop to a broadband service via Ethernet or Wi-Fi. And your laptop’s internal modem can provide a reliable, if slow, way to get online. But what if none of these connections is available?

The answer may be to use your cell phone as a modem. Data-transfer speeds can be low, and your phone bill could be high (especially if roaming charges apply). But it still beats being cut off from the Internet entirely.

Data service

The first thing you need to do is check with your cellular service provider to see if your phone can be used as a modem. Don’t assume that it can just because it can download ring tones and Web pages.

Once you have a data-capable phone, you’ll need to figure out how you’ll connect it to your laptop. You have three options: USB, infrared (IrDA), or Bluetooth. Speedwise, it doesn’t matter which one you use, because the data-transfer rate between your carrier and your phone is usually slower than the one between your phone and your computer.

What kind of phone?

If you have a CDMA cell phone (see “What’s your network” table on next page), you may not have Bluetooth—these phones often have USB and IrDA ports instead. Of the two, USB is the way to go because its connections are easier to maintain.

GSM phones, on the other hand, may sport any of those three ports. If you have a choice, go with Bluetooth. It doesn’t require a cable, and its 30-foot range is much greater than IrDA’s. (Because Bluetooth has largely superseded IrDA in recent years, I’m going to provide instructions for wireless connections using Bluetooth.) If you’re not sure of your phone’s capabilities, check its documentation or contact the phone’s manufacturer.

Almost all current laptops have USB ports, which can be used either for cabling to a cell phone or for adding Bluetooth. If you’re not sure of your laptop’s capabilities, check its documentation, contact the manufacturer, or look for the USB symbol or the Bluetooth symbol on its case.

The hookup

Connecting a phone to a laptop via USB is a snap. You buy the correct data cable for the make and model of your phone (or use the one provided in a connection kit from your phone provider). You then plug one end of the cable into the cell phone and the other into a USB port on your laptop.

If you’d rather connect via Bluetooth, the first step is to be sure that both devices have Bluetooth enabled. To check on your particular phone, you’ll have to consult its documentation or the manufacturer. To check your laptop, open System Preferences. If your computer has Bluetooth installed, the distinctive Bluetooth icon will appear in the Hardware row. If it’s not there, you’ll need to get an add-on Bluetooth adapter.

To connect your phone to your laptop via Bluetooth, you first have to pair the devices. Pairing authorizes the two devices to securely talk to each other; once such a pair is created, it’s remembered, and the process doesn’t have to be repeated. While you may need to consult the documenta-tion that came with your phone and Bluetooth adapter for specifics, the general procedure goes like this:

1. Activate the Bluetooth option on your cell phone. (Note that Bluetooth uses battery power, so it should be turned on only when needed.)

2. Make your cell phone discoverable by choosing the appropriate command (sometimes called Show Phone) in its Bluetooth menu.

3. Turn on Bluetooth on your laptop. Choose Apple: System Preferences, and then click on the Bluetooth icon. In the Settings tab, select Turn Bluetooth On. (As with the cell phone, turning it off when it’s not in use will extend battery life.)

4. Pair the cell phone with the laptop. In the Bluetooth preference pane, open the Devices tab. Click on Set Up New Device to launch the Bluetooth Setup Assistant. Follow the on-screen instructions for setting up a mobile phone (see screenshot).

Make the call

Once you’ve connected your laptop to your mobile phone, you could use your phone as you would a traditional modem, dialing in to your ISP’s local access number. The main appeal of this option is that it’s essentially free, because it uses voice minutes from your cell-phone service plan to access your existing ISP account. However, it’s painfully slow—usually no faster than 14.4 Kbps—and unreliable.

If you want to get online, a better solution is to subscribe to a data-access plan from your mobile-phone service provider. Prices range from $10 per month for minimal access to $80 for unlimited, all-you-can-eat data transfer.

When you sign up for data access, your cell-phone service provider should give you a connection kit with all the necessary account information, as well as a modem script file for your particular phone. If you didn’t get a script, download the appropriate one from your phone manufacturer’s Web site or search Google for the term modem script and the make and model of your cell phone.

Once you have the script, follow these steps:

1. Copy the script file into /Library/Modem Scripts.

2. Choose Apple: System Preferences, and then select the Network pane. From the Show pop-up menu, choose the port you’re using. If you’re using a phone connected via a USB cable, the name of the phone should appear in the list. If you’re using a phone connected via Bluetooth, select Bluetooth.

3. Click on the Modem or Bluetooth Modem tab and adjust the settings as necessary for your particular phone. Depending on your phone and provider, you may need to change the defaults. Check the Read Me file that came with your modem script.

Other cellular options

If connecting your laptop to your cell phone seems too complicated, consider these alternatives: You could buy a midrange phone that can check your e-mail itself. Or you could get a full-fledged smart phone with its own Web browser, instant mes-saging, e-mail, and so on. Smart phones are con-venient because you don’t have to lug around your laptop, but the small screen size and often cum-bersome data-input techniques may make this option impractical.

Or you could skip the phone altogether and get a cellular card for your laptop, such as the Sierra Wireless AirCard. These credit card-size devices plug directly into your laptop’s PC Card slot and give you access to a cellular service provider’s data network without the need for a separate cell phone.

OS X’s Bluetooth Setup Assistant walks you through the process of getting your laptop and your cell phone to talk to each other.
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