A World Beyond Wi-Fi

Is it time for you to start using wireless broadband service for mobile Internet access?

October 1, 2005

If you're one of the many practitioners who rely heavily on Wi-Fi to access the Internet from the field, it may be time for you to make the move to wireless broadband service.

As current Wi-Fi users know, the biggest drawback to Wi-Fi is its limited range. Access is restricted to "hotspot" areas where antennas are available; if you want to go online, you have to find a hotspot—such as a coffee shop or library—and work from there.

Wireless broadband service removes that restriction and also offers a much faster connection speed. Some broadband service providers such as Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel promise download speeds of between 400 and 700 kilobytes per second, which is significantly faster than the 135 kilobytes per second offered by current Wi-Fi providers.

But there’s a downside to this service, too: Wireless broadband is only as reliable as your cellular phone service. It’s subject to the same disruptions, dropped connections, and dead zones as voice calling. But cell service still has a wider reach currently in most locations than Wi-Fi hotspots.

Since the new wireless broadband services are delivered over the same tower networks as cellular phone service, users can enjoy a broadband connection as they roam, wherever a cellular signal can reach a compatible phone, PDA, or laptop. No more planning Web time around available Wi-Fi hotspots; simply log on whenever you need to from wherever you are.

But before you sign up for wireless broadband, it’s wise to thoroughly assess how practical it is in your service area. Some points to consider:

  • Do you really need it? For anyone with a compelling need to log on to the Internet or access the company network from the field, some form of wireless broadband connection makes sense. Whether that’s Wi-Fi or wireless broadband is your call. If there are enough hotspots in your area to allow you to periodically connect to the Web throughout the day, you may be better served postponing the move up to wireless broadband for now. Otherwise, a wireless service plan may be your only choice.
  • Is it available? Wireless broadband service is currently only available in certain cities. Check with your cellular service provider and other local providers to find out if and when broadband wireless will be available in your area. Watch for announcements of expanded coverage from all cellular providers in coming months.
  • Are there other options? If mobile e-mail is all you really need in wireless service, you can get that for a fraction of the cost of wireless broadband. Some local governments plan to make Wi-Fi coverage universally available to area residents. Find out if your city has such a plan, and take a look at Wi-Fi coverage maps or a directory such as the ZONE Finder from the Wi-Fi Alliance to see if the coverage in your area meets your needs. Most cellular service providers also offer less expensive services than wireless broadband for remote Web access. Three such options are Verizon’s NationalAccess, T-Mobile’s Internet Unlimited, and Sprint PCS Business Connection Personal. If you don’t mind having download speeds somewhere in-between Wi-Fi and wireless broadband, then getting a middle-of-the-road service like these can help you save some money.
  • Is it worth the cost? There are hardware and service costs to consider. Depending on the equipment you currently use, the move to wireless broadband may require purchase of an entirely new piece of hardware or a special wireless “aircard” for broadband connections. Dell is already selling a $249 V620 Wireless PC Card for connecting to Verizon’s broadband wireless service using Inspiron and Latitude notebook computers. Hewlett-Packard should release its own version in coming weeks. Both companies have announced they’ll build wireless broadband capabilities into some notebook models next year. Wireless broadband is a premium service, often charged in addition to an existing call plan. If you want wireless broadband access, it only makes sense to have an unlimited-service package so that you don’t incur additional charges for all the times that you log onto the Internet. The price of an unlimited calling plan is about $60 a month with Sprint and Verizon.
  • Can you afford to wait? Wireless broadband service will be offered by most cellular providers in the coming months. Competition could bring more service options and drive down pricing as carriers try to sign up subscribers. At the same time, Wi-Fi hotspot placement will certainly continue to grow, filling in the coverage map in major cities and larger towns. So if Wi-Fi currently meets your wireless Internet needs, you may be rewarded with more choices in equipment and plans and better pricing if you wait until next year.

Only you can make the decision as to whether you should move up to wireless broadband access or stick with Wi-Fi for now. However, if having wireless broadband access will save you time and boost your productivity, you can make the move with confidence.

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