Mobile Computing: Internet Access via Cell Network

Feature: Going Online With a Cellular Network

When you're on the go with your notebook, you're not always near a Wi-Fi hotspot. And it's not always convenient to make a dial-up connection. (I'd argue that slow dial-up connections are never convenient.)

That leaves you with one other option for Internet access: A wireless wide-area network, or WWAN, such as a cellular phone network. Most cell-phone service providers also offer wireless data options for notebook users. Here's a look at your choices.

Use Your Cell Phone as a Modem

Depending upon your cell phone and wireless service plan, you may be able to press your cell phone into double duty as a wireless modem for your notebook.

In this regard, a number of readers have extolled the virtues of Verizon Wireless. "I live in a rural area not wired for broadband," writes Kevin McCluskey of Melfa, Virginia. Rather than relying on dial-up, Kevin uses his LG Electronics Vx6100 cell phone as a modem. The phone connects to his notebook via USB cable and VZ Access Manager software, which are included with the Verizon Mobile Office kit ($40).

Kevin is on the Verizon NationalAccess 1000-minute calling plan. There's no requirement or charge for data services in addition to the calling plan, and Kevin doesn't have to pay an ISP a monthly fee for Internet access. The connection is "faster than dial-up but slower than DSL," Kevin reports.

Recently, I tested Verizon's Mobile Office kit with an LG VX7000BK cell phone connected to a NationalAccess plan, and I recommend it. Initial setup of the software and connection cable took about 20 minutes. The VZ Access Manager software, which I installed on my notebook, is intuitive, and it displays helpful information such as wireless signal strength and the duration of a connection. Another utility included with the kit, Fourelle's Venturi, helped speed up my connection.

As Kevin noted, the connection speed was noticeably slower than DSL but a little faster than dial-up; Verizon Wireless advertises the typical speed as 60 to 80 kilobits per second.

There are a couple of downsides, though: The Mobile Office kit doesn't let you wirelessly connect a Bluetooth phone as your modem, and it works only with selected cell phones.

Use a WWAN Notebook Adapter

Your other options are to buy a notebook equipped with a built-in WWAN adapter or add the capability via an adapter card.

Sony is the first major computer maker to offer WWAN as an integrated feature in notebooks. The company's VAIO T-Series portables allow you to go wireless using Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or Cingular's EDGE ("Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution"). T-Series prices begin at $1950. For a look at one of the first VAIO T-Series notebooks, read Kalpana Ettenson's May 10, 2005 Today @ PC World entry.

Several cellular service providers sell WWAN notebook adapters. The adapters slip into your notebook's PC Card slot and enable you to connect to the service provider's data network.

Cingular sells two WWAN adapters: the Sony Ericsson GC83 ($150, or free with a new two-year service contract), and the Sierra Wireless AirCard 775 EDGE PC Modem ($50, with a new two-year contract). Both work on Cingular's EDGE/GPRS network. Cingular offers Data Connect plans that begin at $20 per month for 5MB of data transfer and top out at $80 per month for unlimited data. You'll get the fastest speeds, about 100 to 130 kbps on average, in areas where EDGE service is available. Otherwise, expect up to 50 kbps on the slower GPRS network.

Sprint PCS offers two cards: the Sierra Wireless AirCard 580 and the Novatel Wireless Merlin S620. Recently, both were available free after rebates, which requires signing a two-year contract and going for Sprint's $80-per-month unlimited data plan. The Sprint PCS cards work on the company's high-speed EVDO (Evolution Data Optimized) network as well as its older CDMA2000 1x network, according to the company. A 40MB data plan costs $40 per month. EVDO speeds, where service is available, are about 400 to 700 kbps, while data service on Sprint's widely available CDMA2000 1x service is at about 56 kbps.

At Verizon Wireless, your WWAN card choices are the Kyocera KPC650 and the Novatel V620. Recently, each were available for $70 with a two-year contract. Both can connect you to Verizon's BroadbandAccess service, which promises data transfer rates of 400 to 700 kbps (available only in certain markets) or on NationalAccess, which offers 60 to 80 kbps. The only available service plan costs $80 per month for unlimited access.

T-Mobile offers the $200 Sony Ericsson GC79 card for use with notebooks on the T-Mobile GRPS Internet service. The service costs $30 per month for unlimited data transfer at about 56 kbps.

A recent check on Nextel's Web site, which is merging with Sprint, turned up no WWAN cards or data plans for notebook users.

The Bottom Line

If you only have occasional need for WWAN Internet access, using your cell phone as a modem makes the most sense because it's the least expensive option. If your cell phone is supported, try Verizon Wireless's Mobile Office kit. Or check to see if your current service provider and cell phone will enable you to make an Internet connection from your notebook. Some Bluetooth phones, for example, can serve as wireless notebook modems.

Die-hard mobile professionals should investigate what their current service provider offers in terms of monthly data plans and WWAN adapters.

If you're in the mood to change, consider Cingular if you want a variety of data plans to choose from or Verizon Wireless if you want the fastest WWAN speeds and live in one of the 30 Verizon BroadbandAccess markets.

Your Experiences

What's been your experience using a cell phone as a modem? Do you go online via a WWAN adapter and service plan? Tell me about it.

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