September 1, 2005

Review: GPRS Easy Connect

Author: Jem Matzan

When you're on the road and need to connect to the Internet, sometimes the only way to do it is through a cellular GPRS or GSM connection. Wi-Fi wireless access points are not always readily available, and sometimes are not secure enough for private communications. Why not hook up your GSM/GPRS-capable cell phone to your GNU/Linux-based computer and connect that way? The free GPRS Easy Connect utility makes it easier for you to do just that.

Before you begin, make sure your phone has GPRS or GSM capabilities. Check the Web sites of your cellular provider and phone manufacturer. If your phone does not have these capabilities, you have two choices: you can buy a new phone that does, or you can buy a PC Card for your laptop computer that will act as a cellular modem. These cards typically cost between $50 and $250, depending on the brand of card and cellular provider's discount. If you prefer the PC Card route, buy it through your cellular provider to ensure that it is compatible with your service.

If you're going to use your phone, you'll need a cable to connect it to your computer. These days, most connection cables go to a USB port, but older phones require a 9-pin serial cable to connect to a computer. Sometimes you just need a standard A-to-B USB cable, but connection standards can vary from phone to phone.

The service

Next, you'll need to add data transfer service to your cellular plan. Some plans include a certain amount of data transfer (in kilobytes) per month. Other plans offer unlimited data transfer for a flat fee. Check your current cellular plan to see if any data transfer bandwidth (or time, if that's how your provider measures it) is included with your service. If not, call your cellular provider to see how much it will cost to add this service to your plan. Pricing varies widely depending on what provider, plan, and contract term you choose.

If you're looking for advice on which cellular providers to look at for data transfer services, Cingular, Verizon, and Sprint all have data plans, GSM- and EDGE-capable phones, and PC Card adapters available.

Some cellular data services are available only in certain markets or in select areas, so you could have trouble connecting if you go out of your familiar environs.

The software

You can connect to the Internet via GSM/GPRS by using a dialer a program like WvDial, but that requires you to type a lot of custom settings into config files. I tried this method and had no success because I could not find the correct settings.

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My cellular provider is Cingular, which provides a connection manager program to connect Cingular cell phones to the Internet. Unfortunately, there is no GNU/Linux version. I tried using the Windows version through CrossOver Office, but the program crashed whenever I tried to use any of its major functions. Even through VMware with Windows XP, the Cingular program couldn't work because of conflicts with the cdc_acm Linux kernel driver.

GPRS Easy Connect was the answer. It's a simple graphical utility for connecting GSM/GPRS phones to the Internet. It supports more than 291 phones on 217 cellular providers worldwide. I checked the list of phones and compared it to Cingular's current phone offerings and found that only the absolute newest (and most expensive) cellular devices were not supported. No Blackberry devices are supported at all.

My phone is a Motorola V180 -- one of the cheaper flip-phones that Cingular offers. It does have GPRS capabilities, which is the low end of the wireless Internet spectrum. More expensive phones offer EDGE services, which connect at much higher speeds. So far I haven't found any problems communicating between GPRS Easy Connect and the V180, but finding an area that Cingular provided data services was the real challenge.

GPRS Easy Connect can't work properly unless it is running with root permissions. I did not find any way around this limitation. Aside from that, everything operated as it should on two laptop computers running SUSE 9.3 Professional.

The program's extensive setup screen has three sets of predefined options for the V180 on Cingular networks: with acceleration, without acceleration, and without a data connect contract. There is also an option for AT&T Wireless, a company that Cingular purchased. In addition to the standard set of options, GPRS Easy Connect can take custom calling options for those with special network needs.

Overall I found GPRS Easy Connect easy to install, set up, and use. It's an absolute godsend for GNU/Linux users who travel often and need an Internet connection on the road. As cellular Internet service areas improve, so shall GPRS Easy Connect's viability and importance to desktop GNU/Linux.

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