Making Sense of Mobile Broadband Options

For people who work on the web, getting access to the Internet is vital. If we can’t connect to our colleagues and projects online, we can’t earn a living. However, we can’t always stay attached to our home base and therefore we need a way to stay online while we’re on the go. Let’s give you a breakdown of the options for getting online on the go.

Cellular Options:

Mobile phone operators in the United States have been investing billions into building out their mobile broadband networks. Of the four major mobile carriers, three (Sprint/Nextel, Verizon and AT&T) provide high speed mobile broadband to their customers. The little brother of the bunch, T-Mobile, is still only delivering a slow EDGE network to subscribers but are rumored to be rolling out a 3G network soon.

logoAT&T has a 3G network that uses a technology called High-Speed Download Packet Access (HSDPA) that can support download speeds of 1.8-14.4 Mbit/s. Globally there are 102 HSDPA networks in 55 countries. In the United States, AT&T has rolled out HSDPA to most major metropolitan areas.

You can access HSDPA through specific handsets that support the technology or via USB/PCMCIA cards that plug right into your laptop. Note that not all AT&T handsets support HSDPA, particularly BlackBerrys and the ever-popular iPhone. Yet. These non-3G handsets utilize AT&T’s slower 2.5G EDGE network. HSDPA is quick and speedy, but you pay in lowered battery life.

The cost of 3G data access is in addition to whichever voice plan you have with AT&T, and varies depending on the device you have. To add data access on to your non-smartphone handset, AT&T charges start at $19.99 a month for MEDiaNet access. Data plans for smartphones (BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, etc.) start at around $30/month. To add a data plan for your laptop, you must subscribe to a DataConnect Plan starting at $60/month for 5GB of monthly bandwidth. To use DataConnect, you must have either a USB or PCMCIA data card.

Sprint and Verizon Wireless both support the same 3G networking protocol which is different than HDSPA. These two wireless carriers use a 3G technology called Evolution-Data Optimized or EVDO that comes in two flavors – the faster Rev A and the older Rev. 0. The speedier version (currently used by both Verizon and Sprint), can reach download speeds of up to 2.4MBit/s.

EVDO has been around longer in the US, and as result Verizon and Sprint have more handsets available that use this 3G technology. Also, the reach of Sprint’s and Verizon’s high-speed network is wider. Not only are major metropolitan areas well-covered by EVDO in the US, but access is also available in smaller communities.

VZWVerizon’s data plan, BroadbandAccess, ranges in price from $40/month to $60/month. The less expensive plan allows you a measly 50MB of bandwidth. For the typical web worker, I would recommend the 5GB $60 plan. Sprint, on the other hand, has an unlimited data plan with no caps for $60/month. Alternatively, they feature a less expensive $40/month plan that caps you at 40MB/month.

logoCricket (previously covered by WWD) is a low cost cellular service provider that is available in limited areas including Portland, Oregon, Central Texas, Denver, San Diego, and others. Cricket offers EV-DO rev. 0, which is slower than Sprint and Verizon’s EV-DO. However Cricket’s data plan is $35/month for unlimited data usage. If you’re looking for a lower priced option and can work with the slower speeds, Cricket is worth consideration.

If you’re looking to be able to use a broadband data plan for a few days, check out RovAir. They offer cards from AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon for daily rentals.

With these cellular providers, you must check their coverage maps on their respective websites to ensure you’ll have broadband access in your area. Just because you have a cellular signal on your phone does not mean you have 3G/EV-DO network connectivity in that area.

Wi-Fi Options:

If you need Wi-Fi for mobile connectivity, you can rely upon free Wi-Fi hotspots at coffee shops and the like, or pay a subscription fee. To find Wi-Fi hotspots, check out the resources we featured in a previous post.

JiWire is an excellent resource for finding Wi-Fi hotspots around the globe.  In addition to their website locator, the company features downloadable applications for Windows, iPhone, and Mac OS X that will make it easy to find a hotspot.

Fon logoAre you willing to share a piece of your home Internet connection with others in exchange for access to additional hotspots while on the road?  Fon is a company that sells you a wireless router that will enable you to have a ‘private’ network which is for your own use, and a separate network for fellow Fon users.  Once you’re sharing your network, getting on other Fon wireless hotspots (which are available all around the globe) is free of charge.

For subscription services, there are three major players in the US: T-Mobile, AT&T and Boingo. T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi service is well established and available in many locations. In related news, recently it was announced that Starbucks would eventually ditch T-Mobile in favor of AT&T’s Wi-Fi. AT&T advertises 71,000 places to get online with their subscription service.

logoT-Mobile’s Wi-Fi service plans start at around $30/month. Please see their website for detailed information. AT&T offers their Wi-Fi subscriptions starting at $20/month for unlimited use. If you’re already an AT&T DSL customer, you get access to AT&T hotspots as a part of your monthly DSL rate. See AT&T’s website for additional program details.

Boingo logoIf you’re traveling outside the United States or spend a lot of time in airports, you’re more likely to find access via Boingo Wireless than T-Mobile or AT&T.   Boingo plans start at $22/month for laptops and $8/month for smart phones that feature Wi-Fi capabilities.  With all plans, be sure to read the small print regarding roaming charges.

What method do you use to get online while on the road?