Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Travelling With the Internet

May 1999

By Mike Gould

That's right, with, not on the Internet. In other words, you pack up your laptop and hit the road, or friendly skies, or whatever; then you attempt to log in from far away and the fun begins.

I recently traveled to Orlando in the dead of March to attend PhotoshopWorld 99, the first 3-day event devoted to my favorite piece of software. (Photoshop is what we WebWonks and graphic artist-types use to manipulate most of the pictures you see on the Web, and elsewhere.)

I decided to bring along a borrowed PowerBook and use it to check my email (and work on my screenplay, but that's another story) from the balmy latitudes of New Smyrna Beach, as well as from my hotel room in Orlando. I'm a fairly competent computer user, so I figured it would be a piece of cake. Right.

Plan Ahead
I did my homework; got the laptop and loaded it with everything I would need (Office 98, Eudora for email, Netscape for browsing, etc.) and tested all the connections. I immediately ran into a problem with the PCMCIA modem (a unit the size of a fat credit card that plugs into the side of the PowerBook, giving it the ability to do Internet behaviors via phone lines); a new card fixed me up and I was ready to rock; a traveling man. An important lesson learned: always check out everything on your laptop before you travel, and if you are using an unfamiliar unit, plan on spending an afternoon getting everything working. Frequent fliers with their own units don't need to be quite so finicky, but remember that help will be far away. And be aware that it is exquisitely difficult for your support person to help you if you have to keep hanging up on her or him in order to test different modem settings.

Digital Not Spoken Here
I arrived in Orlando, and checked into a nice, yet cheap hotel right across the street from the Orange County Convention Center, where the show was to take place. First problem: forewarned by articles I'd read, I inquired as to whether or not their phone system was modem-friendly: nope. This hotel, like many (if not most) throughout our land, uses a digital phone system that will fry the bajeezis (a technical term) out of any modem unlucky enough to be hooked up to it. Most enlightened hotels will at least have a special room where you can do your online business, but ask before you book your room if this is important to you.

It is also wise to bring a prepaid phone card; telephone charges are a cash cow for many hotels, and you may be in for an unpleasant surprise at checkout time if you do your modem-ing on their dime instead of your own.

I decided that my email could wait until after the conference, when I would be at my in-laws' place in New Smyrna. I set up the laptop in their living room, plugged the phone line into their recently-added phone extension outlet, and got busy with my dial-in ceremony. The modem beeping and booping like R2D2 on a crying jag, I connected to my ISP (the U of M, in this case), and did my login ritual.

Answer Unclear, Ask Tomorrow
"Password Unrecognized". What? Tried again; the modem would make contact with the modem in Ann Arbor, handshaking would commence, all would be well until password time and then I would be kicked off. Aaarrrgh! I had packed away a bunch of diagnostic CD ROMs, and copies of the Operating System; I attacked the laptop with these to no avail.

Then I remembered: phone lines are not necessarily your friend. Hmmm, the outlet in the living room was added later, maybe a problem there? I went to the original phone outlet, and there was the culprit: an answering machine! Aha! I remembered reading that these were notorious spewers-forth of static on phone lines, so I unplugged it, and jacked the modem into that socket. Beep-beep-boop-buweeeerful-SSSSSshhhhhh-chusssssh-Sheeeeesh..."You've got mail!" And all was well. A mere 73 messages had accumulated in the 4 days I had been off line, easily dealt with.

The Explanation
The static on the line is unheard in voice communications, and doesn't affect the initial connection, but once the serious ones and zeroes start flowing, the static prevented the more sensitive password negotiations from happening. This doesn't just affect modems in laptops; this can occur with your desktop computer's modem as well, so think twice about putting a modem on a line with an answering or fax machine, especially if you have a more recent 56K modem.

Back to the prepaid phone card mentioned above; I was able to program all the PIN and other numbers from the card into my dialing software. With the card I used, you would dial in a phone number, wait for an answer, hit 1 to select English, dial in the PIN, and then dial your number. I added these numbers to my dialer, adding commas between the different numbers. Commas tell the modem to pause between numbers, giving the automatic operator on the other end of the line the time to react with "her" Please press 1 for English... routine. You may need to fuss with this depending on which card you use; more commas give you more of a pause between number entry.

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