Boost your cell signal with Freedom Antenna

I am living in a cell dead zone temporarily and thanks to Arc’s Freedom Antenna, I can at least get a few more bars of signal strength and actually hear my callers. The antenna is about four inches high and has various cables to attach to a few different phones — you can search the company’s Web site and find out if yours is covered. In my case, the Razr has a small rubber plug on the back that pops out and can be connected. It is a bit cumbersome, and I still leave the antenna by the window to pick up the best signal, but the arrangement works. The antenna is less than $30 at major online retailers.

Making the switch to computer-based calling

I have been a user of Vonage for my main business line for at least four years and mostly a happy customer. But a series of anticipated moves this summer got me thinking: do I really need this service any longer? And so I have come up with a rather strange plan, so stick with me here for a minute while I explain how I got to my post-VOIP mobile telephony world.

I spend about $60 a month for my business telephone service: half on Vonage, half on AT&T for providing DSL service to my home (which I share for both home and business connectivity). This summer I will be moving across town and splitting off my office into a separate location. First I thought I would just get a cable modem and move the Vonage box and line over to run on that. That is the beauty of tying your business line to a VOIP service: it can move with you. Plus, with the cable downloads at 10 Mb, I can get those mission-critical movies and other image files that are so important to my day-to-day work life.

But the more I pondered that situation, the more I thought I would be better off if I got one of the AT&T broadband PC modems and used my computer for all my outbound calls. The modems are free with rebates and a two-year service plan, and you pay $60 a month for unlimited Internet access. Some of them are USB so can work with desktops, laptops, Macs or Windows. This is the same $60 a month that I was paying for my business line. The downside is that I won’t get anywhere near 10 Mb downloads, but that might cut back on the opportunities to view unneeded visual content.

I am already a big fan of Skype, and they offer an unlimited Skype Out subscription for less than $3 a month to everyplace that I would call with the Vonage account for the most part (you can get more expensive packages if you want to call international places). You can also purchase an inbound number for Skype for a few more dollars a month, but the number of people calling me doesn’t justify this, yet.

There are a couple of important caveats to note here. First, I make a lot of calls to conferencing services, so I need to be able to continue to dial touch tones after the initial call goes through. With Skype, this isn’t a problem: you get a cute little keypad that you can type in your conference number and PIN and away you go.

Second, more importantly, I no longer will be using the actual telephone that has been sitting on my desk for the past 16 years. Granted, this phone has been in many difference cities, and at the beginning of its life was used on New York Telephone where I was paying something like two cents a minute for local calls. The more I thought about my solution, the more I began to miss this old friend and desk totem. As a friend of mine said, it is like you have to clean out the last boxes from your old bedroom at your parents’ house. I will miss the concept of this old Ma Bell ringy-dingy most of all — even though it doesn’t serve any current purpose in my new post-VOIP life.

I don’t mind the headset, and in fact I have a whole passel of Bluetooth headsets that should work on my Mac and Windows PCs for the calls, if I don’t want to use the wired one.

But the third issue is the most important one. To make this trick work, I would need to port my existing Vonage number over to one of my wireless phones. The only way to know if you can do this is to go into an AT&T company-owned store (there are other franchise stores that look exactly the same so it pays to call their support line and find out) and ask them if it is eligible for porting.

I called my local AT&T store and first was told they couldn’t port any Vonage numbers. Then after I persisted, they said I could and just stop by. So far so good.

So what I have in mind is extreme mobility: I should be able to make calls anywhere I have my laptop, as long as I have AT&T broadband service (which should be in most of the major cities I am in). This also has the extra advantage that I am not trying to find Wifi service or have to pay extra when I am in a hotel or airport, because usually those places have wireless broadband. If not, I can use my cell phone, which will be my primary business line. And under the worse case scenario, I can carry an Ethernet cable (remember those) and a phone card and use a payphone!

I am interested in your experiences with the AT&T broadband PC cards, so leave a comment on my blog if you don’t mind. Do you think I am crazy, to contemplate doing this? I think it is kinda exciting.

The state of the WiMax universe

I’ve know Paul Kapustka for many years, back when we both worked at CMP the first time around for both of us. Paul is starting a new venture called and his first report is out. He charges $150 for subscriptions, but given the depth of his analysis and insights, it is well worth the fee if you care about broadband wireless and some of the other topics that he has cued up. Did you know that you can get WiMax in about a dozen different cities around the US (sadly, not St. Louis), including of all places Pahrump, Nevada? Did you know where Sprint stands on its WiMax efforts?  How about what the major players are doing in terms of interoperability? All this and more, as they say.

The report is 23 pages and filled with lots of great info. Unlike some other analyst reports from F_____ and G_______ and others, this is completely free of vendor sponsorship — it is pure Paul.

Baseline magazine: Better Roaming With Mobile Broadband

If you spend a lot of time on the road and are either tired—or fearful—of using public Wi-Fi hot spots, it might be time to consider the various mobile broadband plans that are offered by the cellular carriers.

Mobile broadband offers better roaming—you can leave your latte behind and be connected while in a moving vehicle—and you might even get better throughput, depending on where you are and what service you connect to. And unlike public Wi-Fi, which leaves you a sitting duck for eavesdroppers and amateur hackers, cellular traffic is difficult to intercept.

My road warrior’s guide in this month’s Baseline magazine compares the various mobile broadband plans offered by the cellular carriers. 

Baseline magazine: 10 Tips for Preparing Wireless RFPs

Wireless networks have come of age. With the advent of the latest 802.11n class of products, wireless devices now boast the same throughput and performance as their wired counterparts. But before you consider any wireless deployment, you need to take stock of your goals, decide what applications you’ll be running and determine where on campus your users will need to roam.

Here are 10 questions to address before you draft a proper request for proposal (RFP) from your wireless vendors, published in this month’s Baseline magazine.

Baseline Strominator column: wireless site surveys

In doing some research for April’s feature story on wireless deployments, I came across an interesting difference of opinion when it comes to doing site surveys. Some of my sources are all for them, others are dead set against them. Why the split opinion?

Site surveys refer to the radio spectrum of your site, and looking at what signals presently exist that might interfere with providing WiFi coverage around your office building and campus. They also examine how many wireless access points will be needed to provide enough coverage so that all your users can receive strong enough signals.

You can read the column on Baseline’s Web site here.

Canary WiFi Spotter >> StarTech WiFi Detector

Sometimes I am attracted to the simplest products that do just one thing but do it well. For the past several weeks, I have been carrying around the Canary Wireless Digital Hotspotter HS10. Smaller than a PDA or an iPod, the little gadget detects WiFi signals and tells you several important things about each 802.11b and g access point that it finds: the channel, the SSID, overall radio signal strength and whether it is open or using encryption.Why bother with a $60 device when you can use your laptop to do almost the same thing? Several reasons. First, getting your laptop setup isn’t always easy or desirable, especially in areas that have marginal coverage. Second, the Canary unit can help you find the best spot to do your remote computing. Finally, showing the radio channels is helpful for setting up your own wireless network. In my case, I had four neighbors who were all using channel 6 for their networks. When I changed my own AP to another channel, I got better reception.The Canary unit worked both in radio rich environments, such as downtown San Francisco, and more rural and radio-poor areas too. In the former case, it will take a while to scroll through the many access points that it finds. And yes, you can dive into your computer’s wireless control panel and eventually find this information out without the unit. But why waste battery life and time when the Canary can do a better job?

Unfortunately, it is no longer for sale. Here is an alternative until Canary comes out with a new product.

Update 11/07: ThinkGeek sells a t-shirt that has a Wifi detector built-in. Cool, but it just displays signal strength and not the SSID or whether or not you have an open access point.

Update 2/08: sells its WiFi Detector, which is both a USB 11b/g wireless adapter with a small LCD panel that will show you which networks are in range. It sells for $75. You have to install drivers from a CD (and only for Windows) if you want it to work as a wireless adapter — a better solution would be to have a separate disk partition on the USB drive in case you lose the CD. The screen is small and if you are of a certain age, you will find the information hard to read. The adapter has its own connection and configuration software that is fairly easy to setup and works with all flavors of encrypted networks.

Ten tips to secure your laptop

As more people use a laptop for their primary work PC, the chances for being compromised because of some wireless miscreant looms large. Here are ten how-to tips to protect yourself and make the best use of a wireless network, whether you are at home, at work, or in between.

Read the rest of the article posted today on Techweb/Information