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Novatel has wireless modem for PalmPilot

The modem gives U.S. Robotics' PalmPilot users accessibility to email and special Web sites.

Novatel Wireless has begun shipping a wireless modem for U.S. Robotics' popular PalmPilot handheld computer.

A PalmPilot equipped with the Novatel Minstrel modem gives users access to email and specially coded, text-based Web sites. But a major drawback is that the $400 Minstrel is at least as expensive as the PalmPilot itself.

The modem uses cellular digital packet data (CDPD) technology. CDPD is a wide-area data network that enables mobile access to email and Web sites coded with hypertext for handhelds.

Data packets are transferred in between cellular voice conversations, and users are charged for air time only when data is sent or received, not the entire time when the device is connected. In the interim, the modem is on sleep mode, enabling a battery to last the entire day in most cases.

Minstrel modems transfer data at 19.2 kbps, a slower rate than the standard 28.8-kbps modem, but sufficient for text-based Internet access.

Network coverage and cost are two shortcomings. Though the CDPD network in the U.S. has grown to encompass most major cities and over half the country, some places like Atlanta and Los Angeles have no access because carriers don't provide the service.

More important, low-volume manufacturing makes the Minstrel and comparable products expensive in relation to the handheld unit itself. Additionally, while the average Internet user at home pays about $20 monthly, wireless air time can be significantly more expensive.

It's not clear that regular, instantaneous access to email is a necessity yet for many traveling business users. However, certain vertical markets, where an extra sales or service call can make a difference, are natural applications, says Alan Reiter, president of Wireless Net & Mobile Computing, an industry consulting and publishing firm.

Novatel's Minstrel comes bundled with software linked to service packages. Unwired Planet's "microbrowser," for instance, comes with an AT&T Wireless service package that includes a standard POP account.

The product should reach commerical outlets by early next month.