Friday, May 25, 2007

Can cell phones and "smart" keys co-exist?

If you've been fortunate enough to have purchased a car within the last few years or so, chances are it came with a "smart" key, which has a computer chip embedded in its plastic fob. These intelligent keys have been designed to allow keyless entry; you can enter your car (or, with some models, even start it up) without taking the key out of your pocket.

However, here's something to keep in mind. Don't keep your cell phone in the same pocket.

A statement released May 23 by Nissan North America indicated that some cell-phone models can interfere with the wireless functionality of the smart key if the phones are within an inch of the chips in the plastic fobs. Although Nissan hasn't received any complaints from customers, they will be introducing a revised I-Key that cannot be interfered with.

Presently, smart keys are offered on a variety of new makes and models, and are known by various names depending on the manufacturer. A list of some of these names include:

The Toyota Camry is available with the advanced key as an option starting with the 2007 model year. The Nissan Versa is available with Intelligent Key as an option on the 2007 SL model.

Friday, May 18, 2007

A COW That Doesn't Produce Milk

When is a COW not a cow?

When it is a portable cell site. Many municipalities use "cows," or cellular-site on wheels, to establish temporary coverage for an area, or to augment the coverage for a special even when call-volume loads would be higher than normal. A typical "cow" consists of a 30' to 100' telescoping monopole, equipment cabinets and power generator--all mounted to a trailer (see photo). In October of 2003, when the Cedar fire destroyed much of the communications infrastructure in San Diego's East County, a number of private carriers, working with local government, brought in COWs to establish emergency cellular service for the firefighters and emergency-service personnel. Companies like the Avisar Group ( have developed their own market niche by providing truck and trailer-based cell sites to public and private agencies.

Sometimes, a COW can be a COLT. COLT stands for cellular-site on a light truck (or van) and were critical in providing communications for portions of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and in lower Manhattan in the aftermath of 9/11. Missouri and Kansas currently have an agreement in place with a local cellular-phone provider to provide COW services in the event of an emergency. Under this agreement, the carrier could augment or replace damaged communications lines with their portable trailers in less than 24 hours. This type of public-private partnership is being considered in several other budget-strapped cities faced with the challenge of upgrading older emergency-communications equipment, but lacking the funds for permanent installations.

In 1998, when Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Georges, more than 490,000 landlines were down or had no intra-island long-distance service. CellularOne Puerto Rico, one of three wireless carriers serving the island, reported that by the next morning after the hurricane, more than 85% of their wireless network was damaged. However, by using COWs, the carrier had 75% of their network back online in three days, and 90% in less than a week.

As Chris Wilson reports in an April 17 article for US News and World Report, man-made tragedies like the Virginia Tech incident can also strain a local wireless network, as frantic phone calls flood into and out of the system. Wilson writes that "companies build enough technical capacity into their systems for only a 2 percent increase over normal levels before calls start getting dropped."

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The perfect cell phone

I think the perfect cell phone was the Star Trek Communicator.

Think about it. It could communicate over insanely long distances, and under any kind of weather conditions. It worked inside buildings, in caves and tunnels, anywhere.

A couple of new phones on the market now are coming closer to offering the type of universal communication that was previously only available in science fiction.

In the fall of last year, Samsung introduced its first WiMax-enabled cell phone. This do-everything phone has three hinged pieces, which when opened fully, offer a full QWERTY keyboard, 5-inch WVGA screen, and a 30-GB hard drive, plus the usual extras like an mp3 player, camera, and video.

If you're tired of squinting at the tiny letters on your cell-phone's display, then Telecom Italia has a phone for you. Working with Polymer Vision, they have introduced a cell phone with a unique rollable display. As shown in the photo to the left, the display is larger than the handset itself, and offers readability similar to printed paper. Rollable color screens are planned for future models.

As part of its multi-million-dollar WiMax gamble set for a 2008 launch, Sprint recently introduced its first WiMax-enabled phone, as well as a sports and entertainment "network" known as Sprint Power View with daily video news clips. Access to the network will be on a subscription basis, with basic voice packages starting at $30 a month, with unlimited access to Power View as an add-on cost of $15 to $25 per month. In addition, Sprint is exploring a number of avenues to bring WiMax coverage indoors. According to Bin Shen, Sprint-Nextel's VP of Broadband, in an article for, Sprint "is examining a number of WiFi options--from small cells that link to the Internet over Ehternet cable to more standard cellular-style distributed antenna systems. 'It depends on the situation,' says Shen. 'There is no kind of uniform way that we can do this.'"

However, if Sprint is able to strike gold on some of its indoor WiMax claims, then it could become a significant competitor to traditional WiFi providers--since Sprint could offer blazing-fast connections three to five times faster than WiFi at the same cost.

Other new phones offer even more goodies. For example, the Nokia 6131 can be used as a wireless credit card, transferring payment information to pads at certain retail stores. Other "smartphones" will have Windows-like interfaces, which will allow users to run several applications at the same time, without having to close any of them.

Beam me up, Scotty.