Gobi and the definition of ‘agnostic…’

GobiI’ve returned from a spate of travel with several thoughts of international mobility.  Today it’s about GOBI.  According to Qualcomm’s site, “Gobi is the built-in mobile broadband technology that connects your notebook to the internet at 3G speeds.”  So far it sounds good.  According to various articles and reviews, Gobi is carrier agnostic.  This sounds even better.  I’ve long felt the carrier exclusivity we experience in the US keeps our mobile voice and data hardware and services well behind the rest of the planet.  So before heading to Europe, I decided to activate Gobi on my Motion J3400.

In theory Gobi is simple; get a SIM card, install it into your Gobi enabled device, and you are online.  Have multiple Gobi devices?  No problem, you can move the SIM from one to the other as necessary.

In practice, Gobi is just that simple, except the first part.  Activating a carrier agnostic device was a bit exciting, as I should have my choice of providers, networks, data plans.  I started with a bit of research at the Gobi site to determine if there were any recommended carriers.  However, other than touting the excellence and ease of deployment, Gobi’s site essentially referred me back to my device’s manufacturer site for any questions.  Back on the Motion Computing support pages I found little additional information.  Broadening my search to Google didn’t help either.  There’s a lot of questions out there in the ethers about Gobi, but very few answers.  It’s a relatively new technology, so I decided to open a case with Motion’s support and ask the simple question – What providers should I contact to discuss activation my J3400’s carrier agnostic Gobi module?

They came back quickly, and in Henry Ford’s style; You can talk to any carrier you want, as long as it’s AT&T.  This was surprising, I thought we were offered any carrier we want.  Not on the J3400, and many other devices that have Gobi.  Due to some hardware and software limitations, certain Gobi interfaces are GSM only, with no ability to connect to CDMA, or other cellular technologies.  In the United States, GSM means one carrier – AT&T.  I will investigate with HP, Acer, and other net and notebook providers, as Motion was a bit cagey about whether this was entirely Gobi’s limitation or Motion’s.

EDIT: Not minutes after posting I received an e-mail from Motion.  With the release of version 2.3 of their Connection Manager, there is support for CDMA.  It appears the limitation was software based, and Motion has been working hard to correct it.  This is great news.  I will test this with a Verizon SIM..

I sent a question to Gobi, asking if all modules were GSM only, or if certain we able to connect via other mobile technologies, but have note received an answer.

The SIM from AT&T arrived the very next day, along with one of their USB Connect Mercury sticks.  While I had no need on the J3400 for the 3G modem, AT&T can’t sell a data SIM without an EIN.  Gobi modules don’t have their own EIN.  After some conversation with our corporate AT&T representative, he decided to throw the Mercury in free in order the place the order.  He also asked that I tell him how it all works out, because it was the first SIM he had sold for a Gobi installation.  To AT&T’s credit, he had been educated as to Gobi’s existance.

Using the service was pretty anti-climactic.  The SIM slot in the J3400 is inside the first battery compartment, making it a bit inconvenient if you want to swap the SIM between multiple devices.  (The LE1700 had a SIM slot integrated into the bottom / left bezel, just like an SD card slot.  Since the J3400 is ruggedized an exposed slot isn’t possible, but integrating it behind one of the protective doors that houses the USB and video ports would be more convenient.)  However, SIM in slot, boot machine, run Motion Connection Manager, and click connect.  I was online at speeds that averaged just under one megabit within thirty seconds.  The integration could not have been easier.  AT&T’s coverage in our office is mediocre, and even worse at my home, but I had a seamless connection from the time I turned Gobi on until I shut the tablet down at home.

In stark contrast, I arrived in Paris at Charles De Gaulle airport with a few minutes to spare during this trip.  After getting through customs, I went to one of the cellular kiosks that are so prevalent throughout Europe and Asia, and asked about SIM cards with a data plan.  They were plentiful.  For 20 to 25 Euros I could purchased SIM cards on most any European carrier, (Vodafone had the most options), with data plans regulated by total online time or bytes transferred.  I bought two of them, and both worked perfectly with the Gobi module in the J3400.  I had to change the network type in the connection manager, which resets the module and takes about two minutes.  Once complete, each SIM took me online without issue.  In all cases I could swap the SIM between the J3400 and the Mercury 3G stick plugged into my netbook without issue.

Being able to purchase these data SIMs in country is important.  AT&T’s international data plan, at least when the primary use is in the United States, is very expensive (between $100 and $200 per month extra) and limited 100 or 200 megabytes of data per month outside the US.  It’s not unusual for traveling professionals to carry unlocked phones and a half dozen SIM cards for voice on various continents; it looks like Gobi gives us the ability to do the same for mobile connectivity.