Saturday, October 20, 2007

Thailand's Broadband Wireless Networks

Connect your notebook computer to the Net from virtually anywhere in the country


The Sierra Wireless 580 AirCard slips into a PCMCIA slot and a small antenna flips up for the best reception.

Today, having a PC or notebook computer without an Internet connection is a little like owning a car without a road to drive it on. Internet access has become so integrated into our daily computing activities that when we take our notebook PC on the road but cannot get connected it can seem to be like so much dead weight.

Not to mention the fact that without a network connection, anti-virus or security software switches to ''nag mode'' and seems to be saying ''hey, dumb computer owner, didn't you know you were supposed to be connected to the Internet?''

On the other hand, if you can connect to the Internet with a notebook PC from virtually anywhere in the country, there are some nice bonuses.

As a passenger (rather than being the driver) in a car roaming remote back-roads, Google Earth can help you guide your vehicle, while it may also be convenient to check the web for an idea of where to stay the night _ and then you could always call ahead and make a booking using a VoIP service.

All of these capabilities and more come with a ''data card'' or AirCard, as Sierra Wireless calls its devices that connect to EDGE, GPRS or CDMA cellular data services to give you an Internet connection from almost anywhere.

The Sierra Wireless 875U may be directly inserted into a USB port but comes with this cradle that allows you to place it less obtrusively on your desk somewhere.

Then, you could also listen to the latest BBC World Service news (or any other Internet radio station with streaming audio) on your way to work _ something that I experimented with while evaluating two Sierra Wireless ''AirCards'' that provide ''almost-broadband'' connectivity.

But products such as the Sierra Wireless USB AirCard 875U and the AirCard 580 have a downside: they bring home the fact that Thailand is way behind the technology curve when it comes to high-speed mobile data access.

For, while the Sierra Wireless AirCard 875U is advertised as serving downloads over HSDPA networks at speeds of up to 3.6 megabytes a second, the theoretical best that we can obtain here for now is 216 kbps over the EDGE-enabled GSM networks here of DTAC, AIS or Orange.

Hutch's CDMA technology as implemented across the central provinces of Thailand is about the same: offering a maximum speed of 153 kbps, although there are a few sites that provide a taste of what is to come.

You could take an excursion to one of Hutchison CAT Wireless Multimedia's 1x EV-DO sites, which are currently very limited and include a few universities, the new airport, Parliament, Siam Square and some Hutch shops, where you should find average access speeds of 400 to 700 Kbps while there is a theoretical maximum throughput of 2.4Mbps.

But, aside from these trials by Hutch, 3G networks are still in the planning phase here with the National Telecommunications Commission still busy drafting the licensing terms. These are scheduled for a public hearing in December, but at least with the Sierra Wireless 875U USB modem you'll be ready to take advantage of higher speeds once they are offered, while the 580 AirCard is ready for when Hutch expands its CDMA 1x EV-DO capabilities.

But, back to the real world: both the 875U USB modem and 580 PCMCIA card can be your missing link while away from the home or office and, perhaps most importantly, enable you to keep up to date with email messages while on the road.

Throughput while you are connected varies, both according to the signal strength and, I assume, to traffic on the cell you are using and also at the back-end. Both EDGE and CDMA services slowed down to dial-up speeds (less than 56 kbps) at times _ particularly in the evenings, although I wasn't able to determine whether this was due to heavy use in the particular cell I was in then or whether the chokepoint was at the ISP.

Whatever the causes, nonetheless I found listening to streaming audio such as the BBC World Service radio with an Acer 5926G notebook computer (with good bassy audio) sitting on the front passenger seat of the car to be just fine, albeit with just occasional brief dropouts. However, video clips over either EDGE or CDMA data services are usually jerky while large pictures or flash animations tend to load slowly.

But attending to email and browsing sites that were not graphics-intensive was generally acceptable and the overall benefits are well worth the investment and data charges.

The example of using Google Earth I mentioned was to see where we were in relation to a dam in Prachuab Khiri Khan province. That turned out to be an interesting exercise that put DTAC's cellular network's coverage to the test: with the conclusion being that it did fairly well _ but that for truly remote areas where you can't use your cellphone, well, don't expect data either!

The data-intensive nature of Google Earth is not one I would particularly recommend for mobile data access, at least in pre-3G Thailand at the moment, but the benefits of seeing satellite images of the terrain around us made the wait while loading tolerable.

The Sierra Wireless 875U USB modem offers more flexibility than its PCMCIA or ExpressCard counterparts, worth noting since notebook PC architecture is now undergoing a transition from PCMCIA card to ExpressCard slots. Whereas they all have several USB sockets, the notebook PC that you own today will very likely take a PCMCIA card, whereas the one you may upgrade to, be it next week or next year, will probably come with an ExpressCard slot.

The USB modem, which is really a cellphone that does data and which contains a SIM chip that can conveniently be swapped in or out in seconds, also comes with a cradle. This means that you don't need to have the unit, which is about the size of a pager (remember those?), sticking out of the side or the rear of your notebook, and you can also easily hook the device up to a desktop PC if you care to.

The 875U can also be set at different angles, either to optimise reception or for aesthetic purposes, while when not in use the USB dongle folds into the unit so that it can easily be popped into a shirt pocket or purse when travelling.

Both the 875U modem and 580 AirCards come with software that installs quickly and without problems _ called 3G Watcher and 580 Watcher respectively. This detects insertion of the devices, allows you to connect or disconnect and tracks the volumes of data sent or received, the time connected and the nature of the connection (EDGE, CDMA 1x, EV-DO, etc).

Connections to both the DTAC and the Hutch networks were stable and remained connected while driving around the city or on rural highways, while data streamed pretty much uninterruptedly _ as listening to the BBC World Service indicated.

A word and a warning on data volumes: you should probably get an ''all you can eat'' or ''buffet'' deal for the data since you'll be surprised how quickly this can add up. Both providers offer a package deal for 999 baht a month for unlimited data.

Also, avoid international roaming on data with your computer. First-hand, I have heard two (that's two too many) horror stories from people who have inadvertently run up bills of hundreds of thousands of baht while in Penang for a few days where they innocently surfed the web on their mobile phone with roaming activated.

In conjunction with the 875U, Sierra Wireless promotes its alliances with international carriers that include Singtel, AT&T Wireless, T Mobile and Cingular, but I'd suggest you carefully check first what the premium for roaming on data is. And if, for example, you visit Singapore frequently on business, you might look at investing in a Singtel SIM while you are there.

Both these Sierra Wireless AirCards are future-proof in terms of network upgrades, while in the meantime making the most of the wireless infrastructure we now have.

So what about performance and throughput? There really was not much difference between the two where the 875U AirCard found good EDGE signals, such as around the Bangkok Post office in Klong Toey where download speeds averaged 178 kbps and uploads were 46 kbps as measured using ADSLthailand's speed test.

The 580 AirCard using Hutch's CDMA service _ mostly from home, off Soi On Nut in the Sri Nakharin Road area _ clocked an average of 125 kbps down and 57 kbps up. Ironically, DTAC's speeds were not nearly as good from that location, probably due to a weaker signal, so clearly ''your mileage may vary'' with location and signal reception being a big factor influencing data throughput speeds.

If you need to stay connected _ or maybe you live in an area that ADSL simply doesn't reach yet _ these devices can do the job and enable you to get much more out of your notebook computer. And you shouldn't get any more nags from your security software, either!

1 comment:

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