Modem/LAN PC Cards

PC Card devices provide a reliable solution for
both systems managers and users.


In the market for adapter cards? Be in-the-know
before you go.





Being a mobile worker—visiting five field offices in three days, working on that
remote project for a month or just telecommuting from home because your office supports
air pollution control efforts—ought to be easy, right?


After all, today’s portable computers are almost as powerful as their desktop
brethren. Data-friendly telephone lines are everywhere. And working from a remote office
is no problem—a LAN connection takes you back to headquarters in a flash, right?


Not if your portable PC lacks one essential item—a PC Card modem/Ethernet adapter
to connect it to both the phone network and a LAN.


Finding the right one can be a challenge, but more and more it’s becoming a
necessity.


Today’s increasingly mobile work force requires reliable mobile communications and
networking connections. E-mail is a given in the workplace, LANs are ubiquitous, and
notebook PC users are as likely to dock with a LAN on the go as they are to hook up back
at the office.


The rapid proliferation of Ethernet networking beyond the office to homes, hotels and
remote sites has renewed and intensified interest in PC Card devices that can handle both
communications tasks. Both PC Card and PCMCIA are names for the same kind of device—a
credit card-sized adapter that slips into a slot on a notebook computer.


Mobile workers, often telecommuting from home or from cluster locations in suburbs, are
likely to find Digital Subscriber Line and cable modem high-speed data services, each of
which require Ethernet ports for access. To accommodate travelers, hotels such as the
Wyndham chain are installing Ethernet ports for guests to use to access high-speed
Internet services.


“Communications are now expected by owners of mobile computers,” said Theresa
Nozick, an industry analyst with Mobile Insights of Mountain View, Calif. “They
expect it to be there when they open the box. Manufacturers will need to provide as much
communications on portable devices as are available on desktops.”


The number of portable computer users, estimated to be 50 to 60 million, is going to
grow in the coming months. Notebook sales continue to rise as prices fall. One maker last
October unveiled a sub-$1,000 notebook PC running Microsoft Windows 95; others’
prices are dropping, too.


Such low-priced notebooks may not be quite the bargain they seem if they lack the
built-in modem and Ethernet connectors found in higher-priced models.


Organizations hoping to field an armada of portables will need to budget for modem and
LAN adapters for them.


The built-in modems of systems bought before July or August of last year may not comply
with the latest standard. Last September, the International Tele-communications Union
adopted the 56-Kbps modem communications standard, known as V.90. If your notebook is
serviceable but lacks fast modem and LAN connections, it could be crippled as an effective
communications tool.


Savvy information technology managers are responding to evolving standards by turning
not to built-in modems but to PC Card devices that offer both LAN and dial-up
communications connections.


Get the best combo for your gig













It’s 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
standards—the Rockwell/Lucent Technologies k56flex and the US Robotics
x2—competed for ITU approval. The final V.90 standard borrowed specifications from
both.


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 speeds—communications from a PC to the
network and back—would 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
slower.


This hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for 56-Kbps modems or slowed the rush to adopt the
V.90 specification.


With the standards issue settled, Internet service and data networking
providers—including AT&T Corp., EarthLink/Sprint and America Online, which bought
the CompuServe data network’s dial-up locations—have 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
to users.


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
other.


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
replacement costs.


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 Xircom’s lead, there is
a problem: Gates said Xircom’s RealPort design is patent-protected, meaning a trip to
the drawing board for would-be imitators.


For users whose cards include dongle devices, however, vigilance—and maybe packing
an extra dongle—is 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
users.


The advent of Jupiter-class Microsoft Windows CE devices—subnotebook 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 slots—larger than the CF I slots supported by many first-generation
Jupiters—will be built into most Companion PCs, she said.


Creating connectivity devices for Windows CE notebooks may well be in Xircom’s
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 notebook’s motherboard during manufacture.


Mark A. Kellner, of Marina Del Rey, Calif., has been writing about information
technology since 1983. E-mail him at mkellner@earthlink.net.
 

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