Enter Qualcomm's Gobi embedded-3G module, which includes a Software-Defined Radio that, as the name suggests, can be reconfigured on a software basis -- including by the user. according to Qualcomm, "Gobi supports major RF bands around the world and GPS, all with one chipset." (Getting service assumes, of course, you have an agreement with the carrier, e.g., contract, roaming agreement, pre-paid, daypass, etc.).
Panasonic and other notebook vendors including Lenovo have begun using Gobi modules instead of single-carrier-specific radio cards for customers who want embedded mobile broadband. Panasonic, for example, is offering Qualcomm's Gobi2000 module in its new Toughbook 19 rugged convertible tablet PC.
"Gobi is our option for mobile cellular," says Kyp Walls, Director of Product Management for Panasonic Solutions Company. The Toughbook 19 also can also embed a WiMAX card, which is what Sprint and Clear are using for 4G, but, Walls notes, "but we have not yet commercialized this yet."
Gobi 2000 is Qualcomm's latest version of the Gobi chips. "It's a little faster upload than the Gobi 1000 on HSPA," notes Walls. "And it will allow you to use assisted GPS -- GPS using the cellular net to improve its accuracy."
For vendors -- and resellers and customers -- Gobi-based mobile broadband means that only a single SKU ("stock-keeping unit," a.k.a. a distinct configuration) is now required for embedded-mobile-broadband notebooks, Walls points out, rather than one SKU each for notebooks provisioned different carrier modules.
This makes buying less of a predictive crap shoot. For example, if IT wants to deploy a hundred notebook computers which they may want to provision to different mobile providers, IT can buy simply buy one hundred units of the one SKU and not have to sort out in advance who needs (or will be assigned anyway) what carrier. This isn't just good for buyers, Walls acknowledges, it's also good for vendors. "This means that Panasonic doesn't have to carry multiple SKUs with the different radio-modems."
For international traveller, says Walls, "Gobi lets you take a machine you're using in the United States, e.g. with Verizon or Sprint, which are EV-DO networks, and if you go to Europe or Asia and want to use it on their GSM networks, Gobi will let you change the radio-modem settings from EV-DO to GSM, and let you connect on, say, the Orange or Vodafone network." (Assuming, again, that you've got a service arrangement.)
Resetting a Gobi module to switch carriers -- again, assuming service contracts -- is easy, according to Walls. "We developed a carrier selection application that we include on the hard drive. It's like running a batch file, it's simple."
Currently, including a Gobi 2000 chip on a notebook can add up to around three hundred dollars to the system price tag (potentially less, depending on the myriad factors that go into notebook pricing). And, Walls points out, "The carriers may offer rebates or other incentives."
Although you could, in theory, hop among, say, Sprint and AT&T, on a Gobi-equipped notebook every hour or day, it's unlikely you will, though, since that means you'd have two service contracts, which are associated with the machine, not the user, and in turn twice the monthly costs.
But Gobi might be the game-changer many of us have been waiting for, in terms of those two-year carrier contracts.
Less restrictive deals are already available. Verizon offers its DayPass program. Virgin Mobile and others have pre-paid mobile broadband. And iPass provides mobile broadband access where the monthly charge (other than a more modest base charge) kicks in only in those months you use iPass's mobile broadband or WiFI networks. When embedded mobile broadband no longer locks you in to a specific carrier, perhaps the carriers will become more flexible. (Perhaps not.)
Note, the current Gobi modules don't support WiMAX, or the AT&T and Verizon LTE (Long Term Evolution) 4G networks. "We're working with Qualcomm to see how they will support it," Walls says. "That will probably require a different radio, which means a part swap, assuming we can support it with the existing architecture." But your 3G Gobi gear will still work.
And meanwhile, at least one aspect of selecting a notebook computer just got easier.
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