Business Buyer's Guide to Mobile Broadband

Business travelers know that staying productive on the road requires serious connectivity. That's where 3G (third-generation) cellular data services come in. By adding a mobile broadband connection to your laptop, these wireless wonders give you anytime access to the office, the Internet, and the world. Here's what you need to know to get your notebook online from anywhere.

Technologies

Currently three major types of cellular broadband technologies exist: EvDO, UMTS, and EDGE.

EvDO: Evolution-Data Optimized (EvDO) wireless service is the most established type of 3G data connection available in the United States. Offered by Sprint and Verizon Wireless, EvDO cards feature data rates of up to 3.1 megabits per second in a covered service area. In areas where EvDO service is not available, most EvDO cards will still run via the carrier's slower and older (but more widely deployed) 1xRTT data service. Most metropolitan areas enjoy excellent EvDO coverage, even in outlying suburbs.

UMTS/HSDPA: The Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) has been growing in the United States, thanks to its adoption by Cingular in 2004. Now known as AT&T, the company has continued to offer UMTS service and devices. At this writing, AT&T's UMTS network remains less developed than the EvDO networks of Sprint and Verizon Wireless, though it is available in major urban areas throughout the country. If you require service in outlying suburbs, UMTS may not be ready for your business--yet. Older UMTS hardware offers data rates of up to 384 kilobits per second, while newer hardware using the High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) protocol can reach speeds of up to 3.6 mbps.

EDGE: Not generally considered a true 3G data technology, Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution (EDGE) data service is still widely used by AT&T and T-Mobile. It is much slower than either UMTS or EvDO, with maximum data rates of around 236 kbps. Though EDGE provides acceptable performance on cell phones, it can seem painfully slow on a laptop. If online performance matters to your business, stick with EvDO or UMTS/HSDPA.

A Look at 3G Devices

Your notebook's add-on slot will dictate the right type of 3G card for you. Here's a look at the available options.

PC Card: Most notebooks made in the last decade feature a PCMCIA Type II, or PC Card, slot. About the width of a credit card, a PC Card slides into the side of your notebook and draws power from your notebook's battery.

ExpressCard/34: Smaller than a PC Card, an ExpressCard/34 device also slips into the side of your notebook. ExpressCard is common on newer notebooks only.

USB: These days Universal Serial Bus is, as it name says, universal on PCs and Macs. While many ultralight notebooks may not offer either a PC Card or ExpressCard slot, you'd be hard-pressed to find any modern computer lacking a USB port. USB data adapters are a great choice if you're planning to use a single device with a variety of different computers.

Built-in: As 3G Internet connectivity has grown, so have the options for delivering it to your PC. Many major manufacturers, including Dell, HP, Lenovo, Panasonic, Sony, and Toshiba, now sell laptops with built-in mobile broadband adapters for EvDO and UMTS/HSDPA. Built-in mobile broadband typically adds about $180 to a notebook's retail price.

Carriers

In most cases, your choice of mobile broadband provider will coincide with your choice of cellular carrier, which makes managing your accounts easier.

AT&T: Using UMTS/HSDPA technology, AT&T's mobile broadband is the least mature of the 3G carriers, but it's growing rapidly nationwide. AT&T also supplies slower EDGE service in most areas, but we recommend true 3G for your business data. The 3G LaptopConnect service works with various PC Card and ExpressCard devices, as well as built-in products from Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Sony.

Sprint: Sprint's EvDO mobile broadband network covers most metro areas in the United States and works with assorted PC Card and ExpressCard devices, as well as built-in adapters from Dell, Sony, Panasonic, and others. It even includes unique options for ultramobile devices such as pocket-size OQO computers.

Verizon Wireless: The most mature of all the U.S. 3G networks, Verizon's EvDO BroadbandAccess service comes with the widest variety of options. Verizon supports PC Card and ExpressCard devices, plus built-in products from Dell, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba, and Panasonic. It also offers a wireless router that lets you connect your whole office through the BroadbandAccess service, which makes a great alternative to traditional wired Internet service.

T-Mobile: Not yet invested in true 3G technology, T-Mobile provides only EDGE mobile broadband. At this writing, the company offers only a single PC Card device for use with the service.

Plans

Unlike cellular calling plans, mobile broadband services tend to offer simple, easy-to-understand billing. Almost all of the carriers discussed here provide unlimited connectivity at a rate of $80 to $100 per month; T-Mobile is the notable exception, offering its slower EDGE-based T-Mobile Total Internet service for a mere $50 per month. Ultimately, with price differences between mobile broadband carriers being so minimal, coverage and service--rather than plans and pricing--should dictate your buying choice.

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