Catch the Next Wave in Wireless

By Jamie Bsales

March 09, 2006

Wi-Fi hotspots and e-mail devices can be a mobile professional's best friend. But nationwide wireless broadband access makes those technologies look as dated as payphones. It's pricey, but is it right for you?

Imagine being at an airport, hotel or client site and having a broadband-speed connection at each one. Not that big a deal these days, you say, what with public Wi-Fi hotspots and other 802.11 networks being so pervasive. Now imagine being in between those places — even in a moving taxi or commuter train—and maintaining that same connection. Would that get your attention?

Well, thanks to the new third-generation (3G) cellular networks that have recently come on line, business travelers can use a properly equipped laptop to connect at near-DSL speeds (400 Kbps to 700 Kbps) in most major metropolitan areas. That's more than adequate for surfing the Web, checking e-mail and swapping documents with the home office.

If you used previous-generation cellular data networks, you were probably disappointed with their speed. They were good enough in a pinch, but nothing you would trade a Wi-Fi connection for. With 3G, you won't find yourself hunting for Wi-Fi hotspots. And if you're out of a carrier's 3G coverage area, the radio will automatically fall back to the carrier's available 2G network.

Verizon Wireless launched its BroadbandAccess service (based on EV-DO cellular technology) in the middle of 2005, and the network now covers 150 million Americans nationwide. Cingular's BroadbandConnect offering (using the company's HSDPA network) went live in December 2005, and should have nearly the same coverage footprint of Verizon's network by the end of this year.

To get either service, you can buy a PC Card directly from the carrier ($50 to $100, depending on the length of contract you purchase). Or you can buy one of the new notebook models (from Dell, HP and Lenovo so far, with others to follow) that have the wireless broadband radio and antenna built in (which means there's no card to misplace or leave behind in the hotel room).

As with all new technologies, the cost of entry isn't cheap. You'll need to spend the money up front for the wireless broadband hardware, plus send about $80 a month to Verizon or Cingular for service (or only $60 a month if you sign up for a qualifying voice plan, too). That's more expensive than occasional use can justify. But for the frequent traveler, wireless broadband can actually be an economical choice.


 Cingular Communication Manager screen shot
The Cingular Communication Manager utility helps you easily connect to the company's BroadbandConnect service, as well as to available Wi-Fi networks.

For example, if you spend several days a month on the road and wind up paying $10 (or more) per day for a broadband connection at hotel or airport, the cost for your own pervasive wireless broadband account suddenly doesn't seem out of line. And when you consider the convenience of not having to duck into a coffee shop (and drop $3.75 on a latte) to check e-mail between appointments, that $80 starts to look downright cheap. And if you happen to use your business laptop as your home PC, too, you might find the service fast enough for your needs to cancel your home DSL or cable modem connection. (Just note that there is no wireless broadband access point or router that would let you share the signal with a second home PC; one account, one PC.)

Then there's the convenience factor. With a wireless broadband account, there's no need to hassle with multiple Wi-Fi service providers, account log-ins and bills. And you won't need to re-establish a connection when you move out of range of one hot spot and into another. Also, you won't need to impose on a client you are visiting for a LAN connection or access to his or her wireless network.

So if you're in the market for a new portable computer, consider opting for a model with the wireless broadband circuitry built in. Or if you're happy with your current machine, look into one of the add-on solutions from the wireless carriers. Just like that e-mail gadget you're attached to: Once you try wireless broadband, you'll wonder how you lived without it.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!



Comment and Contribute
(Maximum characters: 1200). You have
characters left.