For years, I've had an unfulfilled vision of an ideal network-connectivity scenario in which I can access my LAN and all its applications from anywhere at any time. I don't mean having access through a phone line in a hotel room or a cybercafe. I'm talking about connecting when I'm at my local non-cyber-enabled coffee haunt, a baseball game, a business meeting, or wherever I happen to be.
This dream scenario obviously would have to involve wireless technology. So, I've been waiting for this technology's availability to catch up to my vision. My geographical location suffers a dearth of wireless networks that are geared toward data handling. Although several local wireless service providers offer wireless connectivity at 11Mbps and faster, the service tends either to be very expensive or to provide limited coverage areas, or both. In addition, popular high-speed wireless solutions (i.e., those based on the 802.11 and 802.11b 11Mbps standards) require full or at least partial line-of-sight to a tower site that contains the access point to which my wireless device (e.g., PC Card in a laptop) is connecting. This requirement doesn't hinder connectivity from my house, which is a fixed location that has an 802.11 radio and a good enough view of my ISP's tower site that I can connect to the Internet at about 450Kbps. Unfortunately, I don't have that line-of-sight from the coffee shop.
One of the factors working against my vision is that build-outs for wireless, datacentric networks are expensive for vendors to implement, especially in rural areas in which the subscriber rate isn't high enough to justify the cost of implementing coverage. In addition, fitting an omnidirectional antenna (i.e., the type of antenna that is ideal for mobile users because it transmits data in a 360-degree field) that has enough power to talk to a distant tower site on a tiny add-in card for a laptop or handheld device is a challenge. Therefore, we must scratch this type of technology, which leaves us with the lower-bandwidth technology that cellular service providers and datacentric wireless networks use (e.g., the technology that the Palm VII and comparable wireless solutions use). These networks usually provide an average connection speed of 9.6Kbps to 19.2Kbps, which simply isn't fast enough for remote wireless access. Or is it?
In my January column, I discussed using terminal services as a remote access solution that works over a low-bandwidth modem connection. A few days after writing that column, I began to wonder: Could combining my cell phone and its paltry data-bandwidth offering with Windows 2000 Server Terminal Services be the long-sought key to my dream scenario? This combination seemed to offer several immediate benefits. I could leverage my existing cell phone service, which provides good coverage, so I wouldn't have to sign up for another wireless service. And I was guaranteed good coverage, which is questionable with wireless network service.
But would it work? I dusted off my unused cell-phone-to-PC serial cable and connected the phone to the PC. Next, to configure my laptop to recognize the cell phone as a modem, I installed a Unimodem driver that I downloaded from Nextel Communications' Web site. Finally, I used the phone to dial my ISP's local access number and became the proud recipient of a 9.6Kbps connection. I knew that trying to run an application such as Microsoft Outlook over this puny connection would be ugly, so I started my Terminal Services client and connected to the server through the Internet. To my amazement, the Terminal Services session was surprisingly fast and usable given the low-bandwidth connection. Although I won't win any productivity awards by using this setup, a Terminal Services-based connection over my cell phone is fast enough to get me one step closer to my ideal remote access scenario. In addition, this setup is convenient and works with many types of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). If you're looking for a custom wireless remote access solution, you might discover it's as close as your belt.