Right now, I’m in a motel. I’m browsing several sites for information to include in this article, downloading a 10 MB file in the background and Outlook is checking for new email every five minutes. But this motel offers no High Speed Internet access. My laptop’s WiFi adapter cannot find an unsecured wireless network to tap. I’m not wired to the room’s phone so I’m not using a dialup ISP. How can I possibly be on the Internet at all, let alone at 1.5 or more Mbps? Mobile broadband makes me a walking Wi-Fi hotspot!
Sprint Mobile Broadband is just one of the companies currently offering the latest generation of High Speed Internet service delivered via cell phone networks. It’s like having a portable cable modem. Indoors or outdoors, at a café table or in a moving taxi, if I can get a four-bar Sprint signal, I’m online at broadband speed, without wires. This is cooler than a polar bears’ picnic!
Cellular broadband is a boon for people who are not within other ISPs’ coverage areas or who need Internet access while they are moving. Once a computer is connected to cellular broadband, it can serve as a gateway device that allows a houseful of computers to share the connection. All that’s required is a router plugged into the gateway computer’s Ethernet port.
You can even buy a router already equipped for mobile broadband, such as the Sonicwall TZ190. Just plug your mobile broadband PC card into a slot on the router and it is connected to the Internet. The router is also a WiFi acess point, so you can connect WiFi-enabled devices to it wirelessly.
Cellular broadband is available in the United States from four carriers: Sprint Mobile Broadband, AT&T Laptop Connect, Verizon Broadband Access, and Alltel Wireless Internet. Other carriers offer cellular Internet service at low speeds of about 60 to 80 Kbps – a little better than dialup. Thanks to competition among these four big carriers, cellular broadband costs have fallen, depending upon the carrier and your location.
Choosing a Mobile Broadband Carrier
Choose a carrier carefully. While all of the product brand names above include cellular broadband, none of them offers it everywhere. Ask what download and upload speeds are available in your area and the places where you will need cellular broadband. Their Web sites offer coverage maps that can help you decide which carrier suits your needs.
All four carriers use a cellular broadband standard called EV-DO, which stands for “EVolution Data Optimized.” EV-DO currently comes in three flavors. Ideally, you want EV-DO Revision A, which supports download speeds up to 3.1 Mbps and upload speeds up to 1.2 Mbps. The original EV-DO downloads at up to 2.4 Mbps and uploads at about 600 Kbps.
EV-DO Rev. A, being the latest standard, has been deployed to the smallest coverage areas so far. If you should roam outside of a carrier’s Rev. A coverage area, speeds will drop to original EV-DO rates. If you go even further afield, an even slower, older, but more widely deployed standard may take over. Eventually, you may run out of range of Internet service all together.
Hardware For Cellular Broadband
There are three common hardware options for adding cellular broadband to your laptop: your cell phone or PDA, if it is broadband-compatible; a detachable PC Card that plugs into a PCMCIA slot in your laptop; or an internal card built into a newly purchased laptop.
If you use a broadband-capable phone, you may need a data cable that connects it to your laptop via an Ethernet or USB port. A few phones use wireless Bluetooth technology to connect to a laptop.
The advantage of the phone option is that you can also use it for voice calls and all the other features that come with a cell phone these days. The card options are better for people who choose a broadband carrier other than their voice phone carrier. My voice phone carrier does not offer broadband, so I chose a Sprint external PC card for my existing laptop.
You can get a free external PC card if you sign a contract for two years of broadband service. But the freebie won’t provide the best coverage, signal strength, and user experience. If it did, carriers would be unable to sell other models for profit.
Problems you may encounter include slower than expected up/download speeds, longer latency (delay in receipt of each packet of data), more lost signals and downshifts to slower standards, and even software glitches that can lock up your cellular connection or freeze your entire laptop. Should you encounter such problems, search for independent reviews of other PC cards offered by your carrier and choose one that performs better. Be prepared to spend $79 and up. But before you drop serious cash on an upgraded PC card or phone, try one of many add-on booster antennas available on the aftermarket.
Boosting Mobile Broadband Performance
Cellular broadband boosters range from a thin sheet of metal foil that fits under a cell phone’s battery to external antennas that connect to a phone or PC card via a specialized cable. Their cost can range from $1 to $50, much less than the cost of a new phone or PC card. Most phones and cards have plug jacks to accept external antennas, but make sure yours does before you buy an antenna.
External antennas can be as small as a cigarette filter. Larger ones can range up to 12 to 18 inches in length. Some are desktop models, like the ARC Freedom Antenna. Others are designed for cars, being long skinny affairs that fasten to a car window or rooftop with screws, adhesive, or magnets.
The signal boosting power of an antenna varies with its design and price. Frankly, the foil-type internal antennas provide minimal gains. Generally, longer antennas provide more signal boost and cost more.
Be sure to select an antenna cable that is compatible with the manufacturer of your phone or PC Card. Some cables come with multi-pronged “universal” adapters.
Cellular broadband is a very exciting alternative to wired and other wireless Internet access options. Coverage areas are constantly expanding – Sprint Mobile Broadband is available in over 220 large and small towns now, for example. Although providers generally have a coverage map available online, you won’t know for sure how it will work where you want it to until you try it out. Be sure to ask if you can return the card within a reasonable period if it does not perform as expected.
If you are not happy with the broadband service options available to you, check out mobile broadband.