Mulling mobile broadband options

A query prompts a detailed review of several ways to connect a laptop to 3G mobile broadband networks and some of the potential gotchas associated with it.

I've been thinking about buying a new gizmo, and it turns out I'm not the only one in the family having these thoughts.

My sister sent me an e-mail over the weekend:

I need a 3G card for my laptop and I'm going to get it from Verizon. What should I ask for? I just don't want them to try to sell me more or less than I need.

Coincidentally, I've been looking into the latest options for mobile broadband access for a couple of months now, ever since the two-year contract ran out on the Option GT Max 3.6 Express I bought in 2007 .

Here's an expanded version of my reply e-mail:

There are four basic kinds of 3G wireless modems: USB dongles, PC Card and ExpressCard devices, portable 3G/Wi-Fi access points, and cell phones with wireless "tethering."

USB modems are the most popular type and usually the least expensive. They plug in like a thumb drive, and they're easy to deal with. But I don't like them because they can stick out pretty far, which makes them awkward and a bit fragile. The larger ones don't work at all with USB jacks that are too close to other ports. Also, the cheapest ones can have relatively poor reception.

If your laptop has a plug-in card slot, it's either for PC Cards or the more recent ExpressCard type. Your user manual will tell you. Verizon offers one of each. They don't stick out so far, which makes them a little more rugged while in use, though you should still remove them before putting away the laptop. I find them more convenient than the USB type.

Novatel MiFi 2372
The Novatel MiFi 2372 connects up to five Wi-Fi devices to 3G mobile broadband networks. Novatel Wireless

A portable access point is worth considering if you have more than one gizmo to connect to the Internet while you're traveling. For most North American users there's only one such device available, the Novatel MiFi.

Sprint and Verizon offer the MiFi 2200, which provides typical download speeds from 400Kbps to 1.4Mbps (Verizon's estimate; actual speeds vary widely).

Novatel also makes the MiFi 2372, which works on AT&T, T-Mobile, and pretty much any international phone network. This is the one I want, but as far as I can tell AT&T and T-Mobile don't offer discounted pricing on this gizmo yet. If purchased directly from a mail-order supplier, it's very expensive--well over $300.

Whichever version you get, the MiFi is a standalone gadget a little smaller than an iPhone. It has its own battery and recharges with a small wall adapter or by connecting it to your laptop (which makes it work like a USB wireless modem). It connects to the cellular data network and creates its own little Wi-Fi hot spot that can be used by up to five systems at once--like your laptop and an iPod Touch.

I don't have one of these myself, but friends do, and it looks like the most convenient way to get online while traveling.

As an aside, I should mention that one of the earliest mobile broadband/Wi-Fi gizmos was developed by a friend of mine, Tor Amundson. He called it the Stompbox, and wrote about it for Make magazine. More information is available on one of his sites, Stompboxnetworks.com.

Earlier this year, Tor told me about an interesting alternative to the MiFi. Cradlepoint makes gizmos that are functionally equivalent to the MiFi, except they work with a user-provided USB or ExpressCard modem. While this approach is noteworthy, I think the MiFi is generally a better solution for most users.

The last option is to get a 3G-compatible cell phone that supports "tethering"--that is, using the cellphone itself as a modem. This can work pretty well, though I had a lot of trouble tethering the Cingular 8525 phone I had before I got the Option card.

The major downside of tethering is that you may not be able to talk on the phone while using the Internet. Apparently AT&T and T-Mobile 3G phones are more likely to support simultaneous operation than those on Verizon or Sprint. I regard this limitation as unacceptable, though you might feel differently. The upsides are that tethering can be somewhat cheaper than getting a separate 3G modem because there's only one contract, and there's nothing else to carry around.

(The iPhone still doesn't allow tethering .)

The most important thing to keep in mind, no matter how you get online, is that mobile Internet usage is quite strictly limited by all carriers. Verizon's $40/month service provides only 250 MB/month of data transfer, and that can run out very quickly. Even the $60 service's 5GB limit can be exceeded in mere days if you spend too much time on YouTube or some other video streaming service.

If you go over your plan limit, per-megabyte charges are really painful. According to Verizon, the 5GB overage rate is 5 cents/MB and the 250MB overage rate is 10 cents/MB. In other words, a single HD video on YouTube could easily cost you a few dollars to watch once you're over the limit.

For comparison purposes, AT&T's overage fees are $10/100MB for its $40/month plan and 49 cents/MB for the $60/month plan. The latter rate is the cell phone equivalent of the death penalty, since hardly anyone is going to go only a few megabytes over the 5GB allotment. A careless user could easily incur hundreds of dollars in overage fees in a single month.

So whatever you buy, be careful how you use it. And if you share your connection (using a MiFi, or via Internet Connection Sharing in Windows), make sure your friends stay away from Hulu.

Another thing to consider is whether you need international access. If you intend to travel a lot, you can get a wireless modem that will work in most foreign countries. Be sure to ask about the countries that matter to you; Japan and South Korea, in particular, have very specific requirements. What Verizon calls "Global Ready" modems are somewhat more expensive to buy, but again, be warned: international roaming can be *very* expensive. (In the U.S., the charges are the same as for any other 3G modem.)

In my opinion, the best way to get Internet access while traveling internationally is to find cheap or free Wi-Fi hot spots and skip the mobile broadband. This approach is less convenient, but there's no risk of coming home to a very expensive bill from your cell phone company.

About the author

    Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

     

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