Even ET could contact home

With a laptop and digital telephone, you can get in touch with anyone ... anywhere. Stephen Pritchard and David Bowen report

It was a bitterly cold day in central Scotland. A laptop was perched precariously on a parapet in the grounds of the Gleneagles Hotel, a mobile phone was connected to it, and both were making bleeping noises. This was wireless communication: we were trying to send a file to an office in London and, after a couple of attempts, we succeeded.

Later, on a bus travelling to Glasgow, we managed to connect to the Tel- Me online service to check on train times. Again we were triumphant, and there was not an external wire in sight.

The laptop office has been dreamt of for many years, but it was only when digital (GSM) mobile phone networks arrived that it became a practical possibility. Computers and telephones combined could create a seamless digital pipe, and the expanding mobile network could send data whizzing round the world. When a necklace of mobile network satellites is eventually in place, it will be possible to send messages from the middle of the Gobi desert to the North Pole - or, of course, from the pub to your boss.

In fact, it took more than the advent of GSM phones to make the laptop office a reality. The mobile network companies also had to market "data cards", the digital equivalent of a modem, before we could send e-mail, surf the Net and exchange faxes without wires. But in the past year or so they have been doing just that and the market is starting to take off.

One of the most attractive aspects of wire-free communications is their simplicity. Once the system is set up, it should be simply a question of choosing the word processor's "print" command, entering the fax number and pressing "send". E-mail is just as straightforward because most of the familiar packages will work with cellular links.

This is a great help to anyone who is frequently on the move. Fax bureaux are fine but expensive, and for those using just a laptop there is one serious obstacle: to send the fax, it has to be printed out, which means carrying yet another (heavy) piece of hardware.

Even the fax modem does not resolve the traveller's problem, because it can often prove impossible to find a suitable socket for the cable.

The mobile phone and data card solve all these problems and more. No socket? No problem. Stuck in a traffic jam? Surf the Web. Train broken down at Crewe? Catch up on e-mail from the office. Lost in the Cairngorms? Fax for directions home (do not try this one, it really annoys the mountain rescue teams).

Digital mobile networks offer speeds of 9,600 baud (slower than most new modems but the same speed as a standard fax machine). This is fine for e-mail and reasonable for the World Wide Web, especially with the graphics turned off. It is a bit slow for file transfer, but this is being addressed. Manufacturers are working on protocols to allow higher speeds, perhaps faster than those available on a normal phone line.

The lines are clear and reliable, in most cases, and it is now possible to send and receive faxes. It is also possible to store faxes in a mailbox when the phone is off, or busy on another call. And users can send text messages from their PCs to colleagues who only have phones, using GSM's short messaging system.

Disadvantages? There are a few. Tim Sheppard, managing director of Lerryn, says people buy ready-to-go packages from companies such as his because configuration can be a nightmare: you have to know the right modem "initialisation" strings for several different services and, he says, you can easily come a cropper.

A more serious deterrent is cost, especially of the hardware: a GSM digital data card is pounds 450, and you must add another pounds 200 or so for the mobile phone (the models advertised in the high street for pounds 30 do not have data interfaces). Users of older laptops will also need a PC card (PCMCIA) adaptor, which adds a further pounds 150 or so. And mobile calls are expensive compared with fixed phone charges.

The "go anywhere" tag does need to be approached with caution. Mobile phones use radio signals to communicate with the fixed public telephone network, and these are subject to interference from geographical features or even from the weather. Some parts of the country - for example, northern Scotland or the Pennines - have no digital coverage at all. GSM phones do work abroad, but not all countries have a data network.

Mobile phones also work less well in vehicles. Coverage can be improved significantly with a "car kit" (extended aerial, signal booster and hands- free adaptor), although these are expensive. There is no such option for the train.

More seriously, coverage inside buildings varies enormously. This is a particular problem for large buildings with few windows, including most hotels. We were freezing in the grounds of Gleneagles simply because our system did not work inside the hotel.

The alternative to heading outside - finding a socket and conventional modem, or hanging the phone by its data cord from an open window - might have been warmer but would have been much less practical.

Suggested Topics
Premier League Live
footballLIVE Follow all the Premier League action as it happens
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + echSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
James Argent from Towie is missing, police say
peopleTV star had been reported missing
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

    Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

    DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

    £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

    Data Scientist (SQL, PHP, RSPSS, CPLEX, SARS, AI) - London

    £60000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A prestigious leading professiona...

    Financial Technical Consultant (C++, C#, Finance, MSc, PhD)

    £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Financial Technical Consultant (C++, C#, F...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone