Cellular Broadband Catching On With Laptop Manufacturers

In the past few months, several major laptop computer manufacturers have announced that they will be embedding cellular modems in future models, to increase the mobility of consumer computing.

The trend began in September when Lenovo (IBM) began selling the ThinkPad Z60t, the first laptop computer with built-in cellular technology to access the internet via Sprint’s EV-DO wireless network. Since then, HP has announced a competing model of their own, while Dell Inc is gearing up to make a host of announcements surrounding new laptops and notebooks that feature chipsets enabling them to connect directly to cellular rather than Wi-Fi networks.

Josh Claman, vice president and general manager of Dell’s UK operation, said, users could expect to see some “exciting broadband technology built into notebooks over the course of the next 12 to 18 months.” He dropped strong hints that the “exciting broadband technology” will mean the addition of chipsets, possibly High Speed Downlink Packet Access chips that enable notebooks to connect directly to cellular networks instead of Wi-Fi networks.

The primary advantage of cellular broadband technology over Wi-Fi networking is its ability to break free of the confines of a wireless hotspot. As of now, these high-speed cellular networks are only available in a few major cities, but the service area is likely to expand dramatically in the coming year and beyond.

Although expensive, and usually not as fast as Wi-Fi technology, the fact that so many laptop makers are integrating cellular technology could convince more and more users to splurge on the increased mobility.

Pressed as to just when users could expect to see support for cellular chipsets, Claman would only say: “Wait for Barcelona, you will hear a lot more about things in this area then.” This suggests that the company will announce the developments at 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, which will run from February 13 to 16.

As ComputerWire noted last week, reports in German business magazine Capital suggest that the first laptops with embedded cellular chipsets in Europe look set to appear at CeBIT in March, with T-Mobile International and Vodafone Germany the operators lining up partners for launches at the show. T-Mobile went so far as to reveal it was working with Fujitsu Siemens Computers, while Vodafone said it was talking to all the leading laptop vendors.

In the US, operators Verizon (49% owned by Vodafone) and Cingular made announcements along similar lines in 2005, the difference with Verizon being that the chipset in question will be for EV-DO connectivity, since it runs a CDMA network. Cingular is a GSM operator and has so far announced only EDGE, a radio access technology sometimes referred to as 2.75G because of its higher data rates than GPRS.

As for the manufacturers of the cellular chipsets themselves, key contenders include Qualcomm, Freescale, Analog Devices, STMicroelectronics, Icera, and Samsung Electronics.