Its in the cards
The devices offer ease of use and, often, upgradeability. For some users, speed may
increase as well. Flash memory chips in the cards allow for easy adoption of new standards
specifications. Their portability means they can be shared, if need be, by a workgroup.
Most of all, the cards provide a reliable communications solution for both the IT
manager and end user. Notebook makers such as Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and
others have chosen not to build in modems and LAN connections so that organizations can
stick with their own standards. An agency using 3Com Corp. network adap-ters on its
desktop PCs can use modem/LAN cards from 3Com unit US Robotics, for example.
Most PC Cards have send and receive fax capabilities; some offer voice telephony
software as well. With these products, workers can be as productive away from the office
as they are at their desks.
Despite the widespread availability of 33.6-Kbps modem/Ethernet PC Cards, 56 Kbps is
fast becoming the baseline modem speed in this form factor. In 1996 and 1997, two
standardsthe Rockwell/Lucent Technologies k56flex and the US Robotics
x2competed for ITU approval. The final V.90 standard borrowed specifications from
The promise of V.90 compatibility for 56-Kbps modems largely is being met through
after-sale software or flash upgrades.
The new modems often operate slightly differently than expected, however.
With older modems, upload and download speedscommunications from a PC to the
network and backwould run at approximately the same speed. Federal Communications
Commission rules and the limitations of some phone network technologies, however, meant a
user would achieve a maximum download speed of 53 Kbps while upload speeds could be much
This hasnt dampened enthusiasm for 56-Kbps modems or slowed the rush to adopt the
With the standards issue settled, Internet service and data networking
providersincluding AT&T Corp., EarthLink/Sprint and America Online, which bought
the CompuServe data networks dial-up locationshave been working at a furious
pace to upgrade their points of presence, or POPs, to accommodate 56-Kbps modems. Still,
half the combination 56-Kbps modem/Ethernet PC Cards found for this survey actually send
or receive data at 33.6 Kbps, the previous high speed.
Ethernet speeds for the first generation of modem/LAN cards generally had been limited
to 10 Mbps, but the latest products can run at either 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps, accommodating
the rapid growth in 100Base-T, or Fast Ethernet, networking connections.
Some combo packages include commonly used software, thus offering a familiar interface
Infamously familiar to notebook users is the dongle. A dongle is a cord a few inches
long with a port at one end and a smaller connector that hooks into the PC Card at the
Lose one and you can kiss connectivity goodbye and count on ponying up between $20 and
$60, depending on brand, for a replacement. According to industry re-searcher Dataquest
Inc. of San Jose, Calif., the total cost of maintaining an inventory of dongles, getting
replacements to workers in the field and the downtime can double the cost of a standard PC
Card modem over its useful life.
One early solution to the dongle dilemma was the xJack and similar built-in RJ-11 phone
connectors, which link modems via standard phone cable to a dial-up phone line. If the
pop-out jack breaks, the modem is worthless, critics point out.
But for one leading modem/LAN maker, the dongle is a thing of the past.
In 1998, Xircom Inc. patented the built-in connectors for its RealPort modem and LAN
connectors, which are built into the card and eliminate the dongle.
I did a series of pull tests and found that cables disengaged from the built-in
RealPort connectors more easily than from dongles or the xJack.
That results, the company said, in increased reliability and decreased repair and
According to Xircom chairman and chief executive officer Dirk Gates, several major
notebook makers, including Toshiba America Information Systems Inc., will this year offer
products with original equipment manufacturer versions of the RealPort.
Although other notebook makers will likely want to follow Xircoms lead, there is
a problem: Gates said Xircoms RealPort design is patent-protected, meaning a trip to
the drawing board for would-be imitators.
For users whose cards include dongle devices, however, vigilanceand maybe packing
an extra dongleis the best insurance against an unsettling loss when traveling.
Although Integrated Services Digital Network and xDSL dial-up services are becoming
more widely used, it seems most likely that built-in Ethernet connections in offices and
hotels will initially bring faster data communications to remote users. For the next two
or three years, cards with faster Ethernet connections will prove invaluable for remote
The advent of Jupiter-class Microsoft Windows CE devicessubnotebook PC companions
announced last October by Microsoft Corp.will create a new kind of modem
opportunity, thanks to the compact flash memory card slot standard in handheld and coming
notebook-size CE devices, said Mobile Insights analyst Nozick.
The Compact Flash [CF] form factor will become more important for all types of
connectivity, from modem to Ethernet, wireless LAN and Global Positioning System
devices, Nozick said.
CF II slotslarger than the CF I slots supported by many first-generation
Jupiterswill be built into most Companion PCs, she said.
Creating connectivity devices for Windows CE notebooks may well be in Xircoms
future, Gates said. The company is also interested in a proposal for a universal daughter
card standard, he said. The standard could be used to create a common modem and Ethernet
adapter that plugs into a notebooks motherboard during manufacture.
Mark A. Kellner, of Marina Del Rey, Calif., has been writing about information
technology since 1983. E-mail him at [email protected].