High-speed cellular wireless modems (e.g. EVDO, HSPDA) in Ubuntu GNU/Linux 6.10

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Note: If you are running Ubuntu 7.04 or greater, this article is no longer relevant. Your EVDO modem should be detected and run at a higher speed automatically.

I’ve been raving about cellular wireless modems/data cards for a while now. While they’ve been available for a long while, they’ve finally become practical with networks such as EVDO and HSPDA that offer broadband-like speeds. I personally own a Novatel Merlin S720 that I use with Sprint’s Mobile Broadband service.

Most of these datacards are easy to get running in Linux–I actually setup mine in Linux faster than I did in Microsoft Windows. However, due to some shortcomings in the kernel used by Ubuntu GNU/Linux 6.10, you cannot take advantage of the speeds that these modern wireless networks offer.

This article talks about some of the problems of the often-used usbserial driver, and how to use the better-performing airprime driver instead.

Why office machines and gadgets hate me (and why I hate them back)

I consider myself a luddite when it comes to most forms of technology, particularly with those devices that are said to “just work.” This includes photocopiers, fax machines, complex phones (e.g. multi-line phone systems, cell phones), printers, home theater systems, and other unholy bastard combinations of these devices. Somehow, they don’t “just work” for me.

Microsoft is very rare at “getting it right,” but on some things they have: one of the goals of Microsoft’s Office 2007 was to help its users more easily and quickly create good looking documents. Doing it quickly makes the user feel smart; having it look good makes the user look smart too.

When I’m fumbling around with inane office equipment and devices, trying to figure out what some flashing LED with meaningless icon is trying to convey, or trying to figure out what combinations of buttons must be pushed in what order to make some device perform some magic function, I don’t feel very smart. When I cannot get these devices to work the way I want them to, it makes me feel stupid and don’t want to use the device again, and become bitter about it (as if I wasn’t bitter enough already).

This is probably the basis for the luddite attitude of many people, for both gadgets and technology as well as computers.

I don’t think this is our fault…

Besides many manufacturers’ complete ineptitude in usability and market testing, many, many manufacturers cut corners and have electrical and hardware engineers write software and design interfaces, instead of hiring dedicated software engineers and usability experts. Just because an electrical/hardware engineer knows how to program, it does not mean they can produce good software, or even know what they are doing.

High-speed Internet access through cellular phone networks

I’m a T-Mobile Hotspot subscriber, but I cannot say I’m particularly happy with it. Reliability is in general pretty good, but there have been a few times a certain hotspot has been flaky, and these tend to be the times I needed access the most. It’s also a pain to have to go somewhere to get Internet access, especially when, for example, I don’t like Starbuck’s coffee. I rather have the Internet come to me.

Enter EVDO. It’s a 3rd generation cellular technology that allows for broadband-like speeds, typically almost everywhere you have a cellular phone signal. There are different speeds depending on what network is available in a particular location:

  • 1xRTT, allowing for 144 Kbps/144 Kbps download/upload speeds
  • EVDO 1x Rev 0, allowing for 2.45 Mbps/150 Kbps
  • EVDO 1x Rev A, allowing for 3.1 Mbps/1.8 Mbps speeds.

All three types of networks are available can be found in the United States, and a typical provider’s access plan lets you roam between them anywhere in the country for free.

Access comes through a provider-specific modem (i.e. you cannot use one provider’s modem with another provider). These usually are PCMCIA cards, reminiscent of the 802.11b network cards people used before WiFi was built-into notebook computers. Connection to a provider usually is provided through PPP software. Most the modems available on the market today are a little oddball: they expose a USB controller, which then exposes a USB serial interface which controls a virtual modem. Yes, it’s strange, especially when these devices aren’t actually modems (there is no MOdulation or DEModulation taking place, the devices are more “network bridges”), but thankfully it allows these devices to easily work with alternative operating systems like Linux and MacOS X.

In the USA, there are essentially three major EVDO providers: Sprint, Verizon Wireless, and Alltell, with Sprint and Verizon having the largest networks by far. What differentiates the Sprint and Verizon, I think, is pricing and policies. If you do not want to sign a contract, both providers cost the same. If you want to sign a contract for 2 yrs, you only get a discount rate with Verizon if you’ve a qualifying voice plan—Sprint has no such limitation to get a discounted rate.

Verizon does a bit of questionable marketing: they advertise their service as “unlimited,” but they pull a trick often used in contract writing and specifically define “unlimited” as 5 GB/month. If you go over this limit, you’re breaking Verizon’s terms of service. Verizon often cancels subscribers accounts, and assumes you are a criminal, downloading illegal music or software. An article in the Washington Post, Bandwidth Bandit, discusses about one subscriber’s woes. Their terms of service disallows many popular Internet applications as well, such as VoIP, video conferencing, or any online gaming. Sprint’s terms of service are more vague and do not explicitly disallow these things, but reports from their subscribers say that they don’t have unreasonably low bandwidth limits nor have draconian policy enforcement assuming you guilty until proven innocent.

This wouldn’t be a good summary without me discussing what new bleeding-edge technology was right around the corner. EVDO Rev B, allowing for at least 4.9 Mbps/1.8 Mbps speeds, has been deployed in a few places in Asia, but given how backward North America tends to be in technology adoption, won’t be in the United States anytime soon. WiMAX, a 4th generation cellular technology allowing for speeds of at least 10 Mbps, will probably take the place of EVDO. Sprint is the only major provider dedicated to building a WiMAX network, with plans to begin deployment at the end of 2007.

Some external links with good information:

Microsoft Windows Vista and the end of the computer hardware industry

Peter Gutmann, a cryptography expert at the University of Auckland, has written a Cost Analysis of Windows Vista, where he discusses how the “content protection” and trusted platform features described in the Microsoft Windows Vista “security” specification will destroy reliability and innovation in the computer hardware industry, as well as make life miserable for us, the users.

Doomsday scenarios like this were brought up when Microsoft Windows XP was about to be released, and though it was enough to make me switch away from Windows to Linux, most of the concerns did not materialize. I don’t know if Vista will be any different of a situation, but if the notion that they definitely want this kind of control (irrespective of whether they can actually do it, or whether the market will let them) doesn’t make anyone who enjoys using their computer want to switch, I don’t know what will.

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