UMTS — fine if you've got it, lousy if you don't

I’ve been looking for a good answer to connectivity while travelling for
quite a while. Most of the time, I find myself paying $10/day for
high-speed connectivity at my hotel and at T-Mobile hotspots — it’s
great, but it’s not available everywhere. And I haven’t quite talked
myself into signing up for the $30/month T-Mobile plan because I do want
to be able to use wireless at places other than airports and Starbucks
(I can’t afford to drink that much coffee!).

So when AT&T Wireless announced their
UMTS service last week, I
was very interested. 300kb down, 50kb up — not bad. And IBM is willing
to pay for the equipment and service, so I gave it a shot.

I got the Novatel Merlin U520 UMTS modem, since I was looking for a
strictly-data service. I took it home, installed the software, and was
on the air in minutes. And it worked at the advertised speed. It even
worked in my office. I was happy (though the software is somewhat

Last night, I decided to try an experiment — I set up my laptop on the
passenger seat and had it connect to the service as I drove. I intended
to start an audio stream and look for dropouts.

But I didn’t get that far. The modem showed “no signal” in the
parking lot. That didn’t bother me, because my phone often shows “no
signal” there. But I expected the modem to connect as soon as I got
into the flats.

It didn’t. I didn’t keep a constant eye on the modem, but I glanced at
it from time to time, and the first time I saw connectivity was only a
mile or two from my house.

This morning, I used the modem at home, and again, I was happy —
especially when we had a brief power outage, and my connection stayed up
even though the house router went down (hmmm, maybe I should get a

Then I drove to IBM’s Silicon Valley Lab for a meeting. My cellphone
had full signal, but the modem showed no signal. So I came up on the
building wireless LAN and did some investigation. It turns out that the
Merlin U520 is UMTS-only; it doesn’t fall back to
GPRS/EDGE, and so it’s useless in a non-UMTS area, which is most of the
country. And so it won’t solve my problem of needing connectivity while

I thought I had an answer, because AT&T Wireless offers two UMTS data-capable cellphones which
do have fallback capability. Unfortunately, they fall back all the way to GPRS datarates, not EDGE, and that’s too slow to be useful to me.

I guess it’s back to Starbucks for me!

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