Sierra Wireless 881U: A Great Choice for Mobile Internet on Ubuntu

As a nearly full-time Linux user, it can be frustrating when exciting new hardware comes out. My enthusiasm is often squelched when I find out that the new device offers no support for my beloved OS of choice, Ubuntu.

That has been the case when investigating cellular Internet services from many carriers. I discovered recently, though, that the Sierra Wireless Aircard 881U, available with service from AT&T, has had support built right into the kernel in Hardy, the nearly-released development branch of Ubuntu.

Support for a variety of Sierra Wireless devices has actually existed in the mainline kernel since version 2.6.23, and a driver is available from them to add support to kernel versions as old 2.6.18. That means it would be possible to get supported devices working with Ubuntu versions as old as 7.04 (Feisty Fawn).

The driver, support scripts, and the guide I used to get setup are all available at the Sierra Wireless website. I chose to use the pppd method of installation, as Network Manager doesn’t quite yet seem able to configure this device on its own. I understand that there is a version in development though that plays nice with cellular cards like this. I look forward to that release!

The one gotcha I ran into was needing AT&T’s APN (Access Point Name) and my username and password for configuring the device. I called AT&T and surprisingly was routed to exactly the right person as soon as I said “I’m setting up my 881U on Linux and I need to know the APN and user information I need to put in the configuration.”

They were very helpful and not once did I feel like a second-class customer because I was not using Windows. Good on them.

It turns out that information for AT&T is already entered as examples in the pppd helper scripts, so that call was largely unnecessary, but it was nice to have the information confirmed. In the “gsm_chat” file I set the APN line to “OK ‘AT+CGDCONT=1,”IP”,”ISP.CINGULAR”‘”, and I made no changes to the “gsm” file. After making that one change invoking “pppd call gsm” got me online!

Now when I’m on the road, if I have the 881 plugged in when I boot up, it “just works” and by the time I get logged on I am already online. It was particularly useful yesterday when I was riding home on the vanpool I use and one of my fellow riders asked me for recommendations on a new laptop.

Not only I was able to show off my new Sager Np2092, we were able to get online, look at the models he was considering, and look at other ones I would recommend.

The most satisfying part of the conversation was when he said, “That doesn’t look like Windows on your computer, what is that?” and I was able to tell him all about Ubuntu.

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3 thoughts on “Sierra Wireless 881U: A Great Choice for Mobile Internet on Ubuntu

  1. My office uses Verizon pcmcia cards. It takes a little bit of cli wrangling the first time you put it in (looking at dmesg and then modprobing the right vendor #), but after that’s done, they work great–just wvdial and you’re done.

    Substantially easier and faster (once installed) than they are on Windows.

  2. “it’s can be frustrating”

    Ouch!

    Sorry for correcting you. It must be my catholic school background… but that extra ‘s in the word ” it’s ” distracted me from reading the item…, for a bit.

    Your blog is far too professional to contain a typo!

    🙂

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