Mobile Computing: The Cellular Internet

The ability to connect to high-speed cellular networks for Internet access and e-mail is increasingly being built into notebooks. In a related development, Verizon Wireless recently announced 24-hour access to its broadband EvDO network for $15--meaning you no longer have to sign up for its $60 monthly plan to use the network.

So the time may be right to consider opting for built-in Wide Area Wireless Networking in your next notebook. Here's what you need to know.

What's WWAN?

WWAN technology enables a laptop or other device to connect to the Internet anywhere that cellular network coverage is available. The major wireless service providers (Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, and such) offer broadband WWAN services that provide DSL-like download speeds.

Notebook users have been able to access the Internet over cell phone networks for several years now with cellular wireless network PC Cards. The cards are available for $50 and up, depending on service agreements, promotional discounts, and so on. For more on this option, read my September 2005 column on the subject.

In May 2005, Sony's Vaio T-series notebooks became the first to provide built-in WWAN connectivity as well as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The integrated WWAN radio in the Vaio notebooks connects to Cingular's high-speed EDGE wireless data network. For more on this, read "Sony Prepares WWAN-Equipped VAIO Laptops."

Who Offers Built-In WWAN?

In addition to Sony Vaio notebooks, Lenovo's ThinkPad T60, ThinkPad Z60, and ThinkPad X60 models have an internal WWAN antenna. The Lenovo models connect to Verizon Wireless's EvDO network. For more details, read "Lenovo Boosts ThinkPad Battery Life."

Dell offers the Latitude D620 with a built-in WWAN antenna for use on Cingular's high-speed network.

The HP Compaq nc6140 and nc6320 notebooks have an integrated cellular wireless chip that connects users to Verizon Wireless's broadband network. Read "HP Readies EvDO Notebook" for more on the nc6140.

What Are the Advantages?

As I mentioned earlier, WWAN gives you access to the Net anywhere your cellular service provider has a signal. That's a huge convenience for mobile professionals.

Also, you can stay connected while traveling, without having to log onto different networks--as you do when roaming between Wi-Fi access points. For example, you could continually surf the Web on a moving passenger train, which isn't possible with Wi-Fi's limited range.

WiMax, a souped-up Wi-Fi alternative with much greater range, may prove to be a viable contender to WWAN. But mobile WiMax isn't expected to be available in more than a few commercial products until 2007. For background, read "IDF: Intel Mobile WiMax Card Coming This Year."

What Are the Disadvantages?

With a built-in WWAN chip, you're locked into a specific carrier's network. Changing carriers will probably require hiring a technician to replace the WWAN radio in your notebook with one that works with your new carrier's network.

Also, you'll need to sign a two-year contract to get a decent rate for broadband WWAN Internet access (unless you use Verizon's $15 plan for 24 hours). Even so, fees for unlimited broadband access on cellular networks are expensive at $60 to $80 per month depending on the plan, whether or not you have a voice plan with the carrier, and such.

Sit Tight or Jump In?

Who is a likely candidate for a notebook with built-in WWAN connectivity? Here's the profile, in my opinion:

  • You're away from the office one week or more per month.
  • You need to travel with your laptop, and you need easy Internet access on the go.
  • You need a new notebook now, or soon.
  • You know which high-speed cellular data network you will use in your travels.

If you don't fit that profile, I'd suggest you wait. Stick with Wi-Fi for now, or connect on the go with a smart phone such as a Palm Treo 650 or 700w. Another option is to invest in a WWAN PC Card modem from your preferred wireless service provider. (Keep in mind, however, that WWAN PC Cards can be a big drain on your laptop battery.)

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