Cards on the Table

Back to Contents of Issue: June 2002

A roundup of the latest hot products for wire-free surfing.

by J Mark Lytle

WE HAVE TO ADMIT to feeling slightly guilty at dispatching Justin Hall to the sleepiest parts of Northern Japan in his quest for an online fix. The reason? Well, we just happened to have a bunch of the best wireless Internet access cards on test in the office at the time.

J Mark Lytle overdosed on Internet in the name of research.

Readers of our Wireless Watch newsletter will be well aware of the increasing popularity in Japan of cards, such as DDI Pocket's Air H", designed for completely wire-free Internet access. Studies have shown that a surprisingly high number of users are using the cards not for a little top-up hit of online time when away from their main terminals, but as their sole means of getting online. Given the spring upgrade to DDI's network to 128Kbps, we felt it was high time to round up the contenders. The cards themselves vary wildly in price from store to store -- all except the FOMA P2401 and the prepaid b-mobile card can be picked up relatively cheaply, and in the case of DoCoMo's P-in cards, often for free.

au Rapira ( )
First off the blocks is the Rapira PCMCIA card from au. Strictly speaking, the card is marketed by au's parent company KDDI, but as a purely academic difference, it's not worth worrying about too much. Speaking of marketing, Rapira (or C315SK to its friends) appears to be available in fewer and fewer stores, where it is losing shelf space to speedier upstarts like DDI Pocket (see below) and FOMA. The Rapira service offers packet-based data (charged according to the quantity transmitted) at up to 64Kbps, which is the same as a single ISDN line. Naturally, it uses the same cdmaOne technology as au's second generation cellphones.

Rapira is a decent option, but one with limited life due to au's recent 3G launch and the fact that the company doesn't offer an unmetered 'eat-all-you-can' option, as other networks have done. If you're a Mac user, you'll need to look elsewhere.

DDI Pocket Air H" ( )
Next up is clear market leader DDI Pocket's range of cards under the Air H" banner. Apparently, H" is pronounced 'edge,' but why DDI couldn't just say so in the first place is anyone's guess. These days, DDI displays in electronics stores feature no fewer than five different wireless access cards. Four of them are simply variations on a theme -- 32/64Kbps cards from various manufacturers in either CompactFlash or PCMCIA card format and all work with PC or Mac. The provenance of the hardware is of little consequence, so we'll treat them as a single entity. The second flavor of card is the new Honda Electron 128Kbps model, which is the only one that can make use of the new, speedier network.

As noted previously, DDI Pocket was pleasantly surprised to find its slower service being used by many users as their only Internet connection, having previously marketed Air H" as a means to a quick net top-up via PDA, for example. The key to DDI's success was that it was the first company to offer its wireless access unmetered. At launch last summer (and still now), JPY5,800 was sufficient to secure either continuous 32Kbps access or 25 hours at 64Kbps. As of this January, a supplement of JPY3,500 for Option 128 allows, unsurprisingly, 128Kbps of bandwidth for you to fill your face with chunks of Internet until you can stomach no more.

The unmetered 32Kbps deal, which incidentally proved so popular last year that it allegedly scuppered parent company KDDI's plans to sell DDI pocket, is fine for textual email, but anything more demanding calls for an upgrade to 128Kbps.

JCI b-Mobile ( )
An intriguing recent addition to the wire-free marketplace comes from corporate specialist JCI under its b-mobile brand. The BNH-10-J PCMCIA data card uses DDI Pocket's PHS network (see above) but is actually manufactured by Honda Electron specifically for JCI. The company claims to be Japan's first MVNO, or Mobile Virtual Network Operator, as it purchases the right to use DDI's 'fat pipe,' on which it runs its service. JCI takes great pains to emphasize that it is not a mere reseller, pointing out that it adds value to the package in the form of its own technology to speed up Web browsing and email transmission.

For many folk, the most innovative part of the deal will be the fact that it's available prepaid -- 12 months of 128Kbps tsunagi hodai (unmetered) Internet access is available for JPY90,000, which is distinctly cheaper than DDI Pocket's own offering. Pricing aside, there are some other interesting wrinkles. B-mobile makes use of what it dubs an accelerator to compress data at its end before flinging it through the ether across four 32Kbps channels to the card nestling in your PC (or Mac). JCI claims the net result is a perceived download speed of up to 200Kbps, but take that with a pinch of salt. Nonetheless, the b-mobile card is an impressive piece of kit and a brave attempt to do something different in a cutthroat market.

NTT DoCoMo FOMA P2401 ( )
By now, the world and his dog have heard about DoCoMo's 3G world first, in the shape of its FOMA network, so we won't bang on about it, save to say that the thing to bear in mind is that 3G's selling point is fast data transmission. That's why we'll all soon be pocketing video phones and watching movies on the bus -- apparently. DoCoMo's first lineup of FOMA handsets was complemented by the P2401 PCMCIA card, which generated a few sales in Tokyo's (FOMA was initially available only in the capital) more nerdish social circles.

The card, which is for PC only, can handle circuit-switched data (charged per minute online) at up to 64Kbps or packet data at an impressive 384Kbps. The FOMA Web site has this to say on the subject: "Packet transmission charges are based on the volume of data transmitted, regardless of transmission time, making this method ideal for receiving, reading and sending email and other text-based data. 64Kbps data transmission charges are based on the connection time, so this method is the preferred choice for downloading multimedia content, large-volume files et cetera."

Initially high charges hindered FOMA take-up, but recent radical price-cuts seem to have given sales a boost, so the P2401 is worth considering. Finally, the service area is still the most limited of all the cards we looked at, but Big D promises us something approaching reasonable urban coverage by October this year.

NTT DoCoMo P-In Series
( )
Bringing up the rear is DoCoMo's PHS-based P-in series, which is a range of CompactFlash and PCMCIA data cards that run at up to 64Kbps. Again, there are no Mac drivers available -- is this what made DoCoMo the world's biggest telecoms operator?

The latest iteration in the series, the P-in memory, includes 16Mb of onboard memory for you to do with as you will. DoCoMo's brochures don't really offer much in the way of suggestions, beyond stating that this is a greater capacity than 10 floppy disks, but you can download files to it and use it like a conventional CF memory card. Given that DoCoMo's cards perform similarly to DDI Pocket's Air H", but without an unmetered option, there's little to recommend them.

If you're a typical prospective technology buyer, you're likely to feel you're drowning in a sea of figures Ð prices, speeds, optional charges and any number of obfuscating brochure entries make for an almighty headache. Putting speed to one side and considering only the bottom line, the b-mobile card comes out smelling of roses (it's pretty fast too), but give FOMA a thought if you fancy a spot of life on the edge. @
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