BitDepth 592 - September 04

After months, or a couple of weeks, depending on how you count it, I finally put Digicel's GSM data network to the test and find a viable alternative for roadwarriors seeking a way to remain connected on the road...
The other wireless Internet

If you can place a call, you can surf the net. Digicel's GSM data network isn't fast but it is pervasive. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

It's taken almost a year to get this BitDepth done. Ten months of going back and forth with Digicel to get a trial organised, then two months of fighting with recalcitrant hardware software combinations to get the connection up and running.
To be clear, very little of this is Digicel's fault, well, maybe except for the part where my request for a trial of their GSM data service got lost in the employee shuffle that's so much a part of corporate life at both telecom providers.
Still, all's well that ends well, to massage a noble but largely expired cliché. A week ago, I struck gold with a combination of the Sony Ericsson K550 I was testing, the Digicel SIM card I extracted from a Sony Ericsson GC89 wireless PC card and Novamedia's updated driver for the Mac OS.

In the original plan, I should have been able to jack the GC89 into my PowerBook, load the once free Novamedia driver for the card, plug in the service provider information and connect to the Internet.
That absolutely did not work. I still can't figure out whether it was a combination of updates to the operating system, the new Novamedia software or just the cussedness of the interface and the challenges of finding where to change one crucial setting that spelled an end to that plan.
I got as far as getting the software to recognise the card and configuring options which correctly identified Digicel's TT network, but no further.

SIM switch success
Then the K550 came along and with Digicel's permission, I switched the SIM card over to the phone and allowed the automatic configuration that activated the voice capability but stalled on the data plan.
Once call to the general customer service line sorted that out, and once I switched the connection from the default ( to, the service was up and running.
Browsing web pages and checking webmail on a screen just over an inch wide can be handy, but hardly fun, so it was time to geek up the testing.
I had already bought Novamedia's enormously useful compatibility plug-in for the K550 to test synchronising personal data with the phone, but there was this other intriguing option to use the phone as a modem for my MacBook, which has no PC Card slot.

I've seen this done before, but only by really smart techies who usually flirted with it for a while before getting themselves an EVDO card.
Stung by the failure of Novamedia's software for the PC card, I was pleasantly surprised to find that their link software made using a GSM data plan on a cellphone with your laptop, even a Mac, is both simple and enormously useful.
I found it easiest to initiate a connection to the Internet using the phone then activate the "Join network..." command in the Bluetooth menu. In a second or two, I had a live connection with the Internet.
Because the connection between the portable and phone is wireless via Bluetooth, you don't have any unpleasant tangles between phone and portable, you can stick the phone in your pocket or leave it lying on a nearby table while you clear e-mail or browse pages.

The price of connecting
I metered fairly consistent connection rates of between 10 and 15 kbps, roughly a third of my TSTT "broadband" connection rates and just over twice dial-up speeds. Wireless connections are notorious for being variable, but on downloads, which tax the network's capacity to deliver a steady stream of data, speeds were fairly consistent, averaging between 12 and 16 kbps and pulling down a 2MB file in three minutes.
Graphics heavy or Flash-based websites load slowly, but pages consisting primarily of text load with admirable speed.
Now it must be noted that while Digicel's service is a sprightly, mobile alternative to dialup, it would be unwise to consider it as a replacement.

Web service is charged at three cents per kilobyte, but serious users will want to consider one of Digicel's four postpaid plans, which start at $95 per month with 20MB bundled and peak at $300 per month with 300MB bundled. You'll pay $5.50 per megabyte over your bundled data. Since these charges are layered on your voice plan, it would be unwise to use this service for regular file downloads based on both speed and cost.
For customers who need to instant message or check e-mail away from a landline, however, it's a remarkable solution. Set your e-mail client to block large attachments and you can have all the basic connectivity you need at a quite reasonable cost.

I should note that I offered to test TSTT's GSM network when I tried out their EVDO network a year ago and the company demurred. With EVDO accounts scarcer than the proverbial hen's teeth these days, road warriors who want to stay connected to the Internet might want to consider Digicel's GSM alternative, which will allow you to access the web on a web-enabled phone and, with a little technical gymnastics, on a Bluetooth capable portable as well.
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