Traveling With Laptops

One of the major benefits of laptop computers is that users can maintain contact with E-mail and other data services while traveling. To this end, most laptops are equipped with internal modems that add no bulk and little weight to the package.

This high-tech equipment, however, can be laid low by a very low-tech problem: how to connect the modem to the phone system in the absence of modular RJ-11 phone jacks.

Although the situation is gradually improving, too many hotels still do not connect their guest-room phones with modular jacks.

The first choice is hotels that cater to the modern business traveler by providing phones with additional jacks on the side labeled “data port.” These jacks let a hotel guest connect a modem without unplugging any cables. the phone and modem both can be left connected to the line, and the phone can pick up incoming calls if the modem is on the hook.

If the phone has only one modular jack, connecting the modem requires merely moving that line from the jack on the phone to the jack on the modem. If the line disappears into the phone with no visible means of connection, check whether there is a jack where the line comes out of the wall. The jack may be deeply recessed, requiring the use of a small-blade screwdriver to depress the release catch.

Problems arise if there are no jacks at either end of the line. There are a number of solutions, each requiring an increasing amount of disassembly of equipment.

The simplest means of connection is with an acoustic coupler. The first problem is that most such devices are limited to a line speed of 300 bps, which makes them practical for sending only a small number of short text messages. Secondly, couplers do not work with all modems. External modems with built-in couplers are available, but that means carrying additional equipment, thus negating the major advantage of a laptop–compactness.

Acoustic couplers are available from most Radio Shack stores and from Novatek Corp. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which also offers acoustically coupled external modems.

Any other type of connection requires a patch cord with a modular plug at one end and alligator clips at the other. Cords can be purchased with alligator clips already attached, or with spade lugs to which you can attach clips. If you take the latter approach, only the red and green wires need clips on them; the other two are not used.

A relatively painless way of connecting this cord is via the mouthpiece. Unscrew the mouthpiece cover from the telephone handset and remove the microphone (it is not attached). In the resulting cavity will be two spring-steel terminals; attach an alligator clip to each of them and plug the modular connector into the modem.

This connection does not allow auto-dialing, so you must dial the telephone number manually. When the remote system answers, direct your modem to pick up the line in originate mode (for Hayes-compatible modems, issue the ATD command without a phone number).

The requirement for dialing manually and controlling the modem makes this method impractical for automated communications programs such as Lotus Development corp.’s Lotus Express or CompuServe Inc.’s Autosig and TAPCIS.

If the phone line is attached to a terminal block at the wall, you can remove the block’s cover and attach the patch cord’s alligator clips to the terminals. Now you have a fully functional modular connection for your modem.

Wall-mounted phones, like the ones in some hotel bathrooms, are often connected through modular jacks. Some are actually hooked right into the hotel’s pos software, so that you are billed for your calls right away. Often you can remove the phone from its mount without unscrewing it; underneath you might find a jack or a terminal block.

If none of the above methods are possible, the final escalation in the connection war requires disassembling the phone. On most traditionally shaped instruments, the cover screws are located under the paper strip holding the telephone number; getting to them requires removing the clear plastic cover strip.

Once the cover is off, you can attach the patch cord’s alligator clips to the terminals to which the incoming red and green wires are connected. The most difficult part of this method is holding down the phone’s switch-hook: With the case removed, there is no cradle for the handset to lie on and depress the switch-hook. Try taping it down with strong adhesive tape.

The best way to avoid all these hassles, of course, is to insist on staying only in hotels that provide appropriate communications facilities. But it pays to be prepared to fashion your own connections.

Portable computer users who use their systems extensively on the road and need to maintain contact with headquarters via electronic mail or other data connections are often forced to become experts at wiring their modems into the hotel’s or motel’s phone system. While many business-oriented hotel chains now have modems or at least data lines in their rooms, many other hotels do not. Of the hotels that do not provide separate data plugs, some at least have traditional phone jacks into which business travelers can plug their laptops. However, in many worst-case scenarios hotel phones have no jacks at either end of the line. In these situations, travelers can resort to acoustic couplers, but most are limited to transmission speeds of 300bps. Another solution is to use a patch cord with alligator clips attached to the wires in the telephone’s mouthpiece.