HSDPA Support In Mac OS X 10.4.7

I've been poking under the hood of the 10.4.7 update, and as it turns out Apple is doing more than a few things right where it regards WWAN support - something I wrote about a couple of months ago, trying to unravel the intricacies of driver models and wondering whether there would be some sort of unified support for Mac OS X.

Well, my curiosity was spiked by this bullet in the 10.4.7 changelog:

  • Adds support for Sierra wireless cards AirCard 580 (AC580), PC5220, and for the Novatel V620, S620, and U730 wireless cards for PowerBook computers.

The U730 is the HSDPA card currently sold by some US operators, and is a variation of the U740. As it happens, that particular card (and its UMTS predecessor, the U630) is reasonably popular here in Portugal.

So even lacking access to a Mac with a PCMCIA slot, I did a little digging under /System/Library/Extensions on my iMac and found that IOSerialFamily.kext has a new set of plugins:

 + Contents
   + Plugins --+-- AppleRS574Serial.kext
               +-- AppleVerizonSupport.kext
               +-- AppleVerizonSupportKicker.kext

Precisely what these two .kexts do, I don't know - especially the "Kicker". I do know that the first one has USB vendor/product IDs for the Novatel product range so I assume that sets up the correct pseudo-serial port mappings and specifies the use of new "WWAN Support" modem script (it too a novelty in 10.4.7).

The "WWAN Support" modem script is located in /Library/Modem Scripts, and has only basic initialization commands - it does not specify an APN for the WWAN connection, therefore assuming that the connection will use the default APN on your SIM card. For more on what this means, check my HOWTO.

Well, as it happens, the U730's USB id is the same as the U740, which means that you can plug in such a card and Mac OS X will recognize it. And I'm told it works fine with the right kind of tweaking, too.

Bear in mind, though, that -

  • This is not necessarily a generic configuration, or (most importantly) one that works with your mobile operator's network.
  • Operator-supplied drivers and software exist for a reason - i.e., to make your life easier.

So what little information I unearthed tonight (time to reach for the Disclaimer) is only for the geeks in the audience that happen to really like fiddling with this kind of thing.

Thanks, Apple

But the main point of this is that it is very encouraging to see Apple adding support for WWAN connections in the OS, even if timidly and in a US-centric fashion.

I can, of course, mention the trifling little detail that there are probably more 3G users in Europe - by an order of magnitude - but some support is better than no support.

Furthermore, I'm told that the drivers above display a nice AirPort-like signal indicator in the menu bar (again, not having a Mac with a PCMCIA slot, I can't confirm), which is very interesting.

For starters, it raises the question of whether that signal indicator is the driver's doing or whether it is a new standard Mac OS X feature that happens to be available for these drivers to use (improving awareness of radio conditions is fundamental for WWAN support at both the UI and driver levels).

At this point, I do not know - I can find no bitmaps in the files above, although that does not mean they aren't there - so any more information is most welcome.

Update: Here it is, courtesy of a colleague of mine:

From what we looked at, it seems like the indicator is managed by the driver itself and is not a generic Mac OS X feature. Too bad, I guess...

We'll see how this pans out over the next few months - 2006 promises to be an amazing year in terms of mobile data (especially here in Europe), so Apple is sure to improve upon this.

Hey Steve, if you need a hand, just let me know. :)