Mobile Broadband Wireless for Laptops and Smartphones

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What is mobile broadband wireless?

Mobile broadband wireless is a technology that provides mobileaccess to the Internet using laptops and smartphones via wireless cellularphone networks. The range of mobile broadband wireless is much greater than thelimited range of WiFi hotspots that have traditionally been used for wirelessInternet access.

This increased range enables users to roam without having to worryabout finding Internet access in a hotel, library or café, even allowingcontinuous access in moving vehicles such as automobiles and trains.

Additionally, cellular mobile broadband wireless signals aregenerally encrypted between your laptop or smartphone and the cellular systemto somewhat protect the contents of your transmissions, unlike many unencryptedWiFi signals in public spaces. Moreover, snooping attempts on cellular signalsare less likely because they generally require more elaborate equipment.

Mobile broadband wireless access is especially useful to those whoregularly rack up bills paying for hotel and coffee shop Internet access on theroad. Additionally, users of online software may consider mobile broadband accessas a back-up Internet connection in case the connection for the office goesdown temporarily.

Types of mobile broadband wirelessconnections

Cellular telephone network providers offer mobile broadbandwireless service. The newest batch of mobile broadband wireless networks arecalled “3G” (third generation) networks. Currently,EVDO is the most common type of 3G network in the United States, provided byVerizon and Sprint.

Another type of 3G network, HSDPA, is provided by AT&T and isused for the iPhone. T-Mobile also offers 3G HSDPA in some markets, but plansto expand its service nationwide in late 2008. Until then, T-Mobile’s 2G EDGEservice is widely available.

Necessary hardware

There are two primary ways to access 3G mobile broadband wirelessnetworks on your laptop: using PC Cards/AirCards or using acellphone/smartphone as a broadband modem.

PC cards/AirCards connect to a laptop via a PCMIA/PC card slot ora USB port, but several laptops already have them built in. Upon signing up fora mobile broadband wireless plan, wireless carriers often supply a card at areduced price, sometimes for free. Mobile broadband wireless PC Cards/AirCardscan typically cost from $50-$200 depending on the model and the wireless planyou choose. Laptops with built-in PC cards include the HP Compaq 6910p, theLenovo T500, the Dell Inspiron 1525, the Dell Latitude line, the Toshiba Portege R400 and the Sony Vaio TZ.

Connecting a cellphone or smartphone to a laptop is another way togain mobile broadband wireless access. This process is called “tethering.” Tethering may be available as afee-based option, added to your mobile plan; but some providers do not supportit. Even if you have a data plan that allows Internet access on yoursmartphone, many providers consider tethering a completely different type ofconnection. If tethering is not supported by your data plan, connecting to theInternet in this way can result in an extremely high mobile service bill. Be sureto check your data plan carefully.

3G-enabled smartphones should not need any additionalhardware—just activate your phone with an appropriate data plan.

Mobile broadband wireless data plans andprovider information

Mobile broadband wireless data plans come in a few varieties, such asdata-only plans for laptops, data-only plans for smartphones and combined voiceand data plans for accessing both data and voice services using a smartphone.Tethering may be another option that is usually available for an additionalfee. Currently, pricing can start at around $30 a month for various data-onlyplans and around $80 for combined voice and data plans.

Some plans specify “data caps” that restrict the amount of users’ datatraffic on the network per month. Certain providers automatically restrictaccess without the imposition of extra fees for going over the data plan cap,but others don’t, which could result in unexpectedly high mobile plan bills.

Roaming charges, which incur when using amobile voice or data device outside of standard coverage areas, such as useoverseas, can also result in unexpectedly high wireless plan bills. TheNew York Times reportedabout a man hit with $852 of roaming charges because hisiPhone automatically downloaded his e-mail messages while he was traveling inEurope—he didn’t know that he should have disabled the automatic downloadfeature before going abroad. In another story reported by the LATimes, a man was surprised by a $400 mobile bill. His plan offered freeroaming for calls received in Canada, but he did not realize that this did notcover the calls he made from Canada. The bottom line: be very careful whenchecking your mobile plan for details regarding roaming charges if you thinkyou will be traveling out of your standard network coverage area.

3G mobile wireless data plans are currently offered in the U.S. byVerizon/Alltel (EVDO), Sprint/Nextel (EVDO) and AT&T/Cingular (HSDPA)for both individuals and businesses.  T-Mobile currently providesa 2G EDGE network nationwide, but plans to upgrade its system in fall 2008.

Benefits and drawbacks

Mobile broadband wireless affords users a much farther range ofmobility than landlines and WiFi Internet access—users are not constrained by alocal ethernet cable or by the typical WiFi hotspot range of 100-300 feet.Mobile broadband wireless service is more akin to cellphone service, coveringwide areas and affording non-interrupted service where coverage is adequate,including in moving vehicles. However, keep roaming charges in mind whentraveling across borders.

A potential drawback to 3G mobile broadband wireless is thatmaximum access speeds are several times slower than themaximum speeds offered by WiFi and landlines.

With plans starting at around $30 a month for data-only serviceand with PC Cards available for free or at a discount when you sign up, amobile broadband wireless data plan may start to pay for itself. In some cases,the monthly cost may be less than the cost of purchasing Internet connectionsat hotels and cafes a few times a month. Possible productivity gains from theconvenience of 24/7 Internet access without scrambling to find an Ethernethookup or a WiFi hotspot can also enter into the value equation. A mobilebroadband wireless connection may also function as a backup Internet connection in case your main connection fails,providing further value to your practice.

This article first appeared in YourABA e-newsletter, a monthly publication distributed via email to all ABA members.  Learn more about the benefits of belonging to the American Bar Association.

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