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Dell builds its wireless portfolio

The PC maker inks a deal to let Dell notebook owners sign up in advance to access T-Mobile hot spots. Dell also plans to start building wireless access into PDAs.

Dell Computer is going wild with wireless.

The Round Rock, Texas-based PC maker announced on Thursday a partnership to let Dell notebook owners sign up in advance to access T-Mobile's hot spots. Across the United States, T-Mobile has thousands of such hot spots, which are public areas outfitted with Wi-Fi, or 802.11, wireless networks to tap the Internet.

The benefit of the deal is that Dell notebook users can then access T-Mobile hot spots more quickly by entering a username and password, as opposed to having to plug in credit card information.

The T-Mobile deal also grants Dell customers 2,000 free minutes of wireless access during their first month of service.

Meanwhile, Dell is moving ahead with plans to build Wi-Fi into its Axim personal digital assistants, which will let the devices access 802.11 wireless networks as well.

The product development efforts, as well as partnerships with T-Mobile and AT&T Wireless, augment Dell's vision of lending business executives and consumers the ability to stay connected to e-mail or to surf the Web nearly anywhere.

Dell announced a deal with AT&T Wireless on Tuesday that lets Dell customers gain Internet access using AT&T's cellular networks anywhere the company provides coverage. The wireless program, which uses GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), provides data transfer rates similar to a standard 56K modem.

Dell notebook owners could potentially use the T-Mobile service while inside airports, Borders book stores, Starbucks coffee shops or any of about 2,600 T-mobile hot spots around the United States. They could then switch to AT&T Wireless while on the road.

Dell plans, over time, to add wireless to nearly all of its notebooks and Axim PDAs. Dell is expected to start its handheld effort by building 802.11b into a version of the Axim by the end of this year.

During 2004, Dell is expected to broaden the wireless capabilities of the Axim with a version that offers 802.11g. Dell is also expected to build a hybrid Axim that combines PDA and cell phone characteristics and can operate on three different wireless network standards: GPRS, CDMA (code division multiple access) and GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications).

T-Mobile will offer three basic service plans for Dell customers. One plan offers a 10-cent-per-minute, pay-as-you-go rate. Another will offer a single-month rate of $39.99. A third offers a 12-month contract with monthly payments of $29.99. The latter two plans offer unlimited access.

Most Dell Latitude business notebooks now come standard with built-in Wi-Fi. Its consumer-oriented Inspiron notebooks can be fitted with a Wi-Fi module for about $50.

AT&T Wireless service requires more of an investment. To get started, customers must purchase a wireless network card, which lists for $299, and sign up for a monthly service plan. Monthly fees start at $29.99, Dell said.