October 23, 2012

The Wi-Fi Alternative: Wireless Broadband for Access Anywhere, Anytime

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By Rick Klau

With Internet connection spots around the country, Wi-Fi seemed to promise a nirvana for users. But as it turns out, the cost of accessing those hotspots can add up. You do, though, have another option-one that lets you work from trains, planes, automobiles and beyond.


About 10 years ago, I spent a few months working at an Internet service provider, selling Internet access to businesses. At that time, few businesses had dedicated Internet connections in their offices. The most popular service was a T-1 line, a dedicated connection that provided the buyer with 1.54 megabits per second. A business could get a connection that was nearly 30 times faster than dial-up, for $1,500 per month. A few years later, consumer broadband offerings started showing up, including cable Internet access from the cable companies and ISDN and DSL services from the phone companies, with costs typically ranging from $50 to $200 per month (depending on the type of service and the equipment involved).

All of these services, regardless of their underlying technologies, had one thing in common: wires. Any faster-than-dial-up connection relied on a technology known as Ethernet, which sported a plug slightly fatter than a phone jack and meant you had to be near the connection point. Or you had to invest in a costly network that would carry the Internet data from the connection point to your PC.

That all changed with the advent of Wi-Fi, which grew to prominence in 2004 and 2005. Just ahead of that growth, in 2003, I wrote about Wi-Fi in a nothing.but.net column and marveled at the futuristic nirvana we would all live in by 2006: "More than 90 percent of all laptops sold by 2006 will have wireless capabilities built in. Is it possible that true wireless Internet access has arrived?" Well, yes. Just not from Wi-Fi.

What happened? Allow me to recount the situation—and, better yet, what turned out to be the solution (at least for me).

Wi-Fi, as you'll recall, is the now-ubiquitous technology that allows computers to share an Internet connection at short range. T-Mobile (in partnership with Starbucks) has thousands of access points (known by their more colloquial term "hotspots") around the country. Almost every airport has wireless Internet access (for a fee). Most hotels—and nearly all of which cater to business travelers—offer Wi-Fi in their lobbies and in their rooms. Wi-Fi is now a must-have component of many professional conferences, and the cost of making a home Wi-Fi-friendly is now less than $50.

Ironically enough, it's this ubiquity of Wi-Fi that caused me to invest in yet another technology, all but abandoning my prior reliance on Wi-Fi. A couple of months ago, as I filled out an expense report, I added up how much I spent on Internet access in that month alone. Five airports at $6 to

$10 per hour added up to $40. Three hotels at $15 per night was another $75. Per-hour access at a handful of Starbucks added up to $12. In all, I'd spent more than $125 that month (a month that was far from unusual) for what amounted to a few days' worth of Internet access.

Given the pricing trend over the past decade—faster speeds at lower prices—I wasn't thrilled that I'd found a way to reverse the trend. There had to be a better way. Thankfully, I found it in the course of a recent business trip.


Productivity Packaged in a Wireless Broadband Card

I spent a week on the East Coast in May, and after a day's worth of meetings in Washington, D.C., I reserved a ticket on the Acela Express (Amtrak's high-speed train to New York) for 7 a.m. the following morning. Knowing I'd be spending six hours on the train that day (three to New York City, and three back), I decided to swing by a Verizon store to pick up a wireless broadband card and make my trip more productive.

Unlike Wi-Fi, which works within a limited distance between your computer and the Wi-Fi hotspot, wireless broadband options provide you with a cellular connection for your laptop. Think of it as broadband dial-up: Your computer effectively dials out to a high-speed Internet connection using a wireless broadband card, and it keeps you connected for as long as necessary.

In my case, this was a huge plus. Finding and keeping a Wi-Fi signal while on a high-speed train is impossible, so connectivity for my laptop was out. My Treo 650 smart phone allows me to send and receive e-mails, but I've always found that to be useful as a fallback, never as a primary device for Internet access. Not only is the Treo keyboard tiny, but long messages are nearly impossible to compose and send on the device in anything resembling a reasonable amount of time. Three concentrated hours on the train seemed a perfect opportunity to test the wireless broadband option.

If it worked, the wireless card would do something else for me—save me money. Unlike the myriad access providers I'd used in past months for Wi-Fi, wireless broadband involves just one provider, and many plans are available for a flat rate.

In my first month of using it, I've paid a flat $80, and in exchange for that, my laptop is now connected whenever I want it to be. For example, stuck in traffic for nearly two hours (I wasn't driving!), I was able to work uninterrupted using the wireless broadband card—including with instant messaging, e-mail and even some downloaded audio. (Streaming video is identified as an expressly prohibited activity on the Verizon network; other networks may be more forgiving.)


When Shopping for Services

If you're intrigued by the wireless broadband option, here are a few pointers. Verizon claims average speeds of 700k to1000k, and those have been well within the range I've seen. Other carriers offering similar services include Sprint and Cingular. When comparing services, look not just at price (your cell phone company may well try to bundle wireless broadband in with your voice service) but also at download speeds. An important tip: Ignore the "maximum" speed—that's a theoretical number that reflects life on a planet in which no other humans are using the service you're using for that period of time. Just focus on the average speed.

And as always, it's good to check out head-to-head reviews (in which you'll notice that the equipment you use is as important as the service itself) through sites like CNET and others.

Also, when you're investigating service options, it is (as with most things tech-related) helpful to have a handle on some key acronyms. So herewith: Verizon's service is an implementation of EVDO (Evolution-Data Optimized), a technology that can attain data transfer speeds in excess of 2 megabits per second. Sprint also uses EVDO, while other carriers rely on EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution)—a conceptually similar but technically different protocol that accomplishes a similar goal: high data transfer rates.

And interestingly, the wireless broadband phenomenon is not limited to laptops. Many cell phones today include support for EDGE or EVDO, giving them the ability to download video and audio. (If you're interested in longer descriptions of what EVDO and EDGE do and why it matters, check out their respective entries in Wikipedia, www.wikipedia.org.)


Another Bonus

The day I chose to get to New York on Amtrak back in May just happened to be the day of Amtrak's largest power outage in 30 years. All trains up and down the Eastern seaboard were shut down. While continuing to work on my laptop, I periodically posted updates about the delay to my blog, and a few hours later I started receiving (while still using my wireless broadband card) dozens of e-mails from people I didn't know asking about the power outage. Curious where these people were coming from, I checked my site stats: Most of them were coming from USAToday.com, where they'd found my blog and linked to it as an example of what people were doing to get through the delays. While the real benefits of the wireless broadband card are its reduction in cost each month over Wi-Fi in a variety of places and its enabling me to work whenever and wherever I want, the fact that I got my company coverage on USA Today's site doesn't hurt.

So here's the bottom line. If, like me, you're spending a ton of money on Wi-Fi, the wireless broadband card offers you dramatically increased opportunities to get and stay online. While speeds likely won't mirror what you're able to get on a Wi-Fi connection, it's more important when you're on the road to have access than it is to max out at the equivalent of a couple of T-1s. Plus, as the USAToday.com tale illustrates, you never know for sure what other benefits you might derive from true anywhere, anytime access.