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MobileStar Cuts the Wires

A guy could get used to working out of Starbucks, and I don't mean slinging java.

This week I had the opportunity to test (read play with) Richardson, Texas-based MobileStar Network Corp.'s wireless broadband Internet service, which, without trying to come off as too much of a drooling fan boy, tastes like freedom (which in turn tastes remarkably like a no-foam skim latte).

MobileStar, founded in 1996, is on a mission to dot what it dubs the "travel ribbon" -- hotels, airports, restaurants, business service centers and coffee shops -- with wireless Internet connections that allow business travelers to get online and hook into the corporate intranets with near-T1 speeds.

To that end, nearly every Starbucks in my Manhattan stomping grounds has been outfitted with either 802.11b (Direct Sequence) or OpenAir (Frequency Hopping) wireless access points connected to T1 lines. All you need to connect are a laptop or PDA with a Web browser (what kind doesn't matter, MobileStar says it supports any standard Internet-ready Web browser on any operating system, including Win9x, CE, WinNT, Mac, Linux and UNIX) and any WLAN compatible device (OpenAir or 802.11b Wi-Fi PC Card).

You also need a subscription, which comes in a variety of flavors. There are two pre-paid plans: 120 minutes for $20, or 300 minutes for $50. There's also an unlimited "Local Galaxy Plan" for $29.95 a month (local plans are available for the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex area, Seattle/Tacoma, San Francisco Bay area, or New York Metro area). For travelers that criss-cross the country a bit more, the choices are an unlimited "National Galaxy Plan" for $59.95 a month, the StarPlan 500 (500 minutes of national use at $34.95 per month and 8 cents for each additional minute), and the StarPlan 200 (200 minutes of national use at $15.95 per month and 10 cents for each additional minute). Finally, for those that can't abide contracts or monthly fees, there is the Pulsar Plan ($2.95 for the first 15 minutes, 20 cents for each additional minute).

I know, I know. Enough with the plans already! How does it work?

Well, on Monday, armed with my trusty Gateway Solo laptop with a Cisco Systems 340 Series Wireless LAN Adapter (a DS card) nestled snuggly in its PCMCIA slot, I stopped in the Starbucks at 23rd and Park Avenue and ordered myself a latte. I looked around for the access point, but couldn't see it. MobileStar says it places APs strategically and discreetly within a facility, allowing for multiple users and continuous coverage. The on-property backbone consists of standard LAN components, including hubs, switches, routers and circuit termination equipment.

Coffee in hand, I found myself a table and booted up. After a small hiccup installing the driver for the Wi-Fi card, I opened my browser and success! The MobileStar log-in screen. Security-wise, uses an authentication process designed for the wireless system. The company claims its security system ensures that "subscribers' Internet experience will not be degraded by unauthorized users." It also says its system has "more security than a wired network." MobileStar also supports VPNs. All you need is a VPN client installed on your PC.

Faced with the log-in, I entered my ID and password and I was ready to Rock 'n Roll.

First things first, of course. I immediately logged onto my Instant Messenger and proceeded to tease my poor, office-bound co-workers mercilessly while sipping my latte. Ah, freedom!

After satiating my penchant for cruelty, it was time to get down to business. Per orders, I began downloading movie trailers to see how the baby handled. Selecting the broadband versions, I downloaded the Rush Hour 2, Spiderman and Lord of the Rings trailers. All three came through with no waiting and played perfectly, though Rush Hour 2 was slightly pixelated when I tried watching the larger picture version.

Figuring I should try something a little more challenging, I decided to skip immediately to the "high-stress" test: the Hotmail account I haven't checked in two weeks (you know, the SPAM trap). Shielding my eyes in case something exploded, I opened Outlook Express and let her start checking for messages. Four minutes, 817 messages and innumerable, irate "Your Account Size is Too Large" warnings later, I decided the laptop probably wasn't going to spontaneously combust.

After that I settled down to do the routine stuff: writing, editing and posting stories and e-mailing out newsletters. The only things I missed were my phone line and printer. Not a bad trade-off for coffee and pastry-goodness.

The final test was moving around. Table to table was no problem, and I was even able to maintain a connection outside the front door. Still, the connection didn't extend much further than that -- after all, MobileStar is a LAN-based service, not a cellular one.

In any case, MobileStar is trying to ensure that travelers won't have too hard a time finding a place to use its service. Currently, MobileStar service is active in several hundred locations nationwide, including hotels, American Airlines Admirals Clubs, and restaurants. It also covers all of the Dallas For Worth International Airport, Austin Bergstrom Airport and Louisville International Airport. It has partnered with American Airlines, IBM, Cisco, Proxim, Nokia, Hilton, Meristar, Marriott, Westin Hotels and Resorts, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn Select, Sheraton, SkyNetGlobal and Starbucks.

I'm off to Starbucks.



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