Friday, January 16, 2009

Ubuntu Rocks the Mobile Broadband

As a Canonical employee, I work at home most days. Generally, I consider this a feature, not a bug. However, I'm also a people person, so when I heard that the Portland area folks have a monthly meetup, I wanted to get down there and reconnect with everyone. Also, bryce, the incredibly productive X guy on the desktop team is planning to attend.

So this is about a 3.5 hour train ride. Seven hours on the train. Could be productive if:
1. I have power
2. I have Internet

The first one was easy, I bought a business class seat for $14 extra dollars. Gives me a more comfy seat, a $3 coupon at the snack bar (I got some juice with it), and power supply.

The second one finally motivated me to go down to the Verizon store and get set up with mobile broadband. So here I am, on the train, blogging about being onthe train blogging.

Really, I wanted to capture the experience of setting this up and using it with Ubuntu while it was still fresh in my mind.

Setting It Up
At asac's suggestion, I grabbed my eee, which is the main computer I plan to use it with, and took it with me to the store. Of course I am running Intrepid on it. The sales guy seemed pretty happy to have a motivated customer :)

Picking the Modem
So first, you have to pick a modem. They are priced ridiculously high, but you get a discount if you buy a plan, which I needed. There were two modems, the $30 one with a plan, and the $70 one with a plan. I went with the $70 one because it's articulated, and also has a secondary usb connection so you can give it an extra power boost if you are in an area with poor reception.

These modems are just simple looking USB devices. Kind of like slightly oversized USB thumb drives. Another advantage of the one that I picked is that it is white, so matches my eee nicely.

Trying it out
So I grabbed the display model, and plugged it into my eee to see what would happen. Nothing initially appears to happen, but when I dropped down the network manager applet, "Auto mobile broadband (CDMA) connection" was already there. I happened to be connected to the open wireless network from a nearby coffee shop at the time. On a lark, I tried connecting (remember, this is a totally uninitialized/activated modem). The result: a complete freeze of my screen! I had to hard reboot my poor little eee.

Activating It
So I decided to actually buy the thing and the plan, and then try again. After signing in a couple of places, I was on the hook for a data plan, and I had my device. It wasn't real clear how to activate the thing, and the Verizon sales guys were basically freaking out, because they didn't see how it could possibly work without their Verizon software, no matter how often I reassured them that Ubuntu would take care of us.

In any case, I tried connecting again, and Ubuntu froze again. Another hard reboot. After the reboot, I turned to Google. In the meantime, they looked it up on their internal support site, which claimed that there was a version of "VZAccess Manager" for Linux. However, there wasn't (at least not that I could find, or they could find). "Are you sure that these .exes won't work"?

I opened connection manager, went to the 3g tab, and saw my device there. I went to edit it, but it was not at all clear what info the thing needed. As far as the sales guy knew, there was no username or password.
Putting the phone number in for the username is not something I would have done had I not read to do it on the forums.
I tried the add button to add a new one. This implied that Verizon was not supported, which didn't seem right to me. Fortunately, I still had a connection to that open wireless access point.
No Verizon? Does this mean I'm sol?
The combination of Google plus the forums, however, did have an answer. I found a posting from Intrepid Beta days, which gave me four critical pieces of information:
1. Verizon worked
2. As usual, it's easier to set up on Ubuntu than Windows or Mac
3. You put the phone number for the modem in the username field
4. You need that figgin' vzaccess manager app to activate the model

Honestly, putting the phone number in the username field does not seem very intuitive to me. However, I did NOT want to deal with finding a Windows machine just to activate the thing, so I told the sales guy to do it for me. He took the thing back into their office. It took him a while to download the app and activate it, so better him than me.


After that, I turned off the wireless connection in the NM applet because now I have a superstition that having them both active caused the freeze (though I haven't tested this out for sure). Also, I wanted to ensure that any internet connectivity I did get was through the 3g card and not the wireless. I plugged the thing back in, filled in the form in Network Manager, picked to connect from the applet, and it connected quite quickly. It also displayed a nice cell tower icon to show how I was connected. This is important, as these plans are pricey.

The sales guy was very happy that it worked. I told him to expect more and more computers running Ubuntu to start showing up in his store.

Summary of Activation Experience

This whole deal took me about 30 minutes. It's fortunate that I had an open access point to get the information that I needed. It wasn't the most intuitive process, but it wasn't really that complicated either. And this is pretty cutting edge stuff. It was hard to explain to my wife why having this thing was important to me, and how it was useful. So all in all, I'm not sure how many users would skate through the setup. Perhaps we need some kind of activation wizard?

Using it
Integration is complete and deep. The cell tower icon provides very strong feedback regarding the connection type.
So I've been using it all morning, for about 2 hours, and I am stoked. Besides being super useful, Ubuntu is handling it like a dream. Smooth as silk. Like butter.

I started with a bus ride this morning to get to the train station. First thing I did was disable my wireless, which I always do because there are so many open access points as the bus goes through the University District that I don't like to be asked if I want to connect every block or two (I know I can disable this, but normally I find this feature handy). I plugged the modem in, chose to connect from the NM applet, and within a few seconds I was connected, and my eee just acted normal. I got email, was on irc, got information from my wiki, etc...

The first thing I was interested in was what happened when I went through the bus tunnel, where there is not cell phone connection. Not surprisingly, my internet stopped working. I closed the lid, got off the bus, and jogged to the train station.

When I got on the train I plugged my eee into the power, and woke it up. When it woke up, the NM showed it was disconnected. I clicked to connect, and within seconds was online again.

While on the train, the connection has come and gone twice (I assume due to changing networks - I don't know too much about how cell networks work), but it always picked up seemlessly, like with a dodgey wireless connection. Also, while driving through the country, it dropped the connection altogether. About two minutes later I chose to connect from the applet, and it connected in about 15 seconds.

Speedwise, it doesn't feel quite as snappy as my wired DSL line, but it feels snappier than many wireless connection points. Since I am limited to something like 5gigs of data transfer per month with my plan, I haven't tested download speeds yet.

So far all I've uploaded are the images for this blog, and it seemed to take a while, but I was way out in the coutry at the time, so the cell connection may have been week.

Two big thumbs up for Ubuntu plus Verizon! Let's talk about making the activation experience smoother, but this rocks!


  1. Now that the modem is activated, I assume you can no longer reproduce the freeze you saw when you first tried to use the device? Were you able to collect enough information to file a bug?

    Even if we can't get the device initialized under Ubuntu yet, we should be able to prevent it from crashing the system.

  2. Hi, Ubuntu used to rock mobile broadband; but not so in Karmic Kaola. I am from India and I used to connect to internet using 'Reliance Netconnect Broadband+' in my Ubuntu Jaunty version. But the honeymoon ended as soon as I upgraded to Karmic. With the same old settings as it was in Jaunty (as far as I can see from the GUI), Karmic doesn't connect at all. Any regression? I searched all support forums but couldn't find a solution to my problem.

    Now I either need to boot into Vista or use the Ubuntu Jaunty live DVD to connect to internet. Plz help if you have any hint on this problem.

  3. Yes, this seems completely broken on Karmic. Any suggestions on fixing it? I cannot even edit the basic Verizon connection under my ID (it fails with insufficient privileges) which does not happen anywhere else in my 9.10 system. If i switch user to root, i can edit the entry but still it never connects or recognizes the hardware

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  6. 12.10 here, attempting to use a Novatel 551L w/o VZ Access Mgr Software. Got the drivers and can see the hardware (USB0), but won't connect using out-of-box broadband connection. Any ideas? TIA