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Weekend: Wireless LAN, but not as we know it

A day in the life of a Tokyo-based technophile

The World Cup brought a lot to Japan. An influx of overweight, pale-skinned, topless soccer fans, Beckham-mania (among Japanese women at least) and an explosion of national pride not often seen among the Japanese. It also brought some experiments intended to show the world that Japan leads the world in information technology or, perhaps more to the point, that Japan leads co-hosts South Korea when it comes to IT.

One such experiment took place on the Narita Express, an express train linking Tokyo's main international airport to the city. The IPv6 Promotion Council had set up a trial intended to provide travellers with internet access right from their seats. NTT DoCoMo's Foma 3G (third generation) 384Kbps cellular network was used to provide a link from the train to the internet.

Since the trial started a couple of days before I was due to fly from Narita Airport, I decided to test out the service, making the mandatory ticket upgrade (since only first-class train passengers were able to take part) and was on my way.

My notebook found the wireless LAN on board the train with few problems and I was soon logged into the onboard server and on my way. The server provided basic information services and even enabled me to watch a movie preview, but failed when it came to full internet access. Despite DoCoMo's claims, I was unable to connect to anything on the web.

However, the system apparently works. "We used it on the way in from the airport and it worked pretty well," said Transmeta's chief technology officer, David Ditzel. He had tried the system for himself when visiting Tokyo a couple of days before my abortive attempt.

Not to be outdone by technology, I had a second crack at the service from access points inside Narita Airport. This time it was more like a game of cat and mouse.

My laptop found a signal but I couldn't seem to get anywhere with it. The green light on my modem card flashed furiously &emdash; a bad sign. A steady flashing usually means an internet connection, but a flash too fast or too slow indicates some type of problem. I'm not exactly sure what the different rates mean because the instruction pamphlet with the card was woefully inadequate (thanks Cisco), but I eventually managed to find a seat in wireless LAN nirvana where the light flashed steadily and my laptop found the net.

Then, of course, my flight was called and I had to rush off to the gate without having done anything useful through the service. It wouldn't have mattered if the flight had been later anyway. With all the power that was consumed trying to search for internet signals, my notebook was almost out of juice.

Perhaps what notebook users need more than anything is longer life batteries so that, by the time we get done fiddling with installing drivers, adjusting Windows settings and connecting to exciting new technologies, we have a chance to try them out.


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