More wireless carriers, mobile device vendors, and computer makers are offering more options than ever when it comes to hooking up to the Internet while you're mobile.
And like most things, there's no single device or type of connectivity that makes sense for every business. How you connect to the Internet on the go should be decided by a number of factors, including how often and where and when you need to connect, how intensive your use of mobile bandwidth will be, and how much value you place on the service--in other words, how much you're willing to pay for the privilege.
Here's a look at five ways for you or your team to connect to the Internet while on the go, and a look at some of the business needs that work for each one.
1. Built-in 3G/4G
Perhaps the simplest option is just to go for a laptop with built-in Internet connectivity. It's a no-muss-no-fuss solution to the problem, provided you don't need to connect via other devices, such as a tablet or another PC.
Buying a laptop with the connectivity built-in means you don't have to fiddle with anything to get connected from on the road, it should work about as seamlessly as possible. But like anything else, there are tradeoffs.
As mentioned earlier, you can't use any of your other devices should you need to (or simply want to.) And for the most part, you will have to pay for a data connection for each and every laptop you want to connect to the mobile network, unlike the other four options we're going to go through, which all offer some ability to share the wireless signal across a number of devices or even a number of users.
However, it's still worth considering if you've got simple or infrequent mobile connection needs. HP has just introduced a pay-as-you-go 3G mobile service with its new Elitebook laptops, and other PC makers are likely to follow suit. That would mean owners of 3G-enabled devices would have some options rather than having to pony up every month, month in and month out, for their Internet connection.
2. USB Stick
One of the oldest and most tried-and-true methods of connecting on the go is the USB modem or "stick," which lets you connect your laptop or other connected device.
With a USB stick, you're not tied to any particular device, which is good. But because USB sticks only offer wired connectivity--rather than creating a Wi-Fi network that can be shared--you're limited to using it with devices that have a USB port and are supported by the stick. In other words: No 3G/4G iPad for you, Mr. Rocket Stick Owner.
That limitation, along with advances in the connectivity through wireless hotspots and tethering, makes the USB stick look like a little bit of a dinosaur. But it's not without its benefits - if your business only needs to connect via laptops, you're good. And if your needs are such that only certain members of your company need to connect at certain time, there's always the option of "sharing" a USB stick (and the bill that comes with it) among a number of teammates.
While the USB stick does require a separate data account with a wireless carrier, at least it's getting to the point where the hardware is free, so long as you don't mind yet another contract with a mobile carrier.
3. Wireless Hotspot
Here's a tradeoff between the USB modem and the option of tethering to share your smartphone's Internet connect (the next item on this list.) A wireless hotspot offers the tethering benefit of letting you connect multiple devices to a cellular Internet connection via Wi-Fi, but it doesn't require you to share your phone's data bucket.
It does offer some additional flexibility, though. Think your 3G connection is fine for light e-mail and surfing on your phone, but not beefy enough for your needs when it comes to connecting via your laptop? No worries. Because it requires a separate service subscription, you can go for a different level of service, or indeed a whole different carrier from your phone service. So go for a 4G wireless hotspot.
Of course, with that extra flexibility comes extra cost - like using built-in connectivity or a USB stick, you're going to have to pay for an additional connection.
The art of sharing your wireless phone's Internet connection across devices has come a long way in a few years, and with the advent of Wi-Fi-based "personal hotspot" sharing, it's now a flexible way to connect any of the variety of devices you use while on the go.
Depending on your mobile platform, you may be able to "tether" your tablet, laptop or other device to your mobile phone's Internet connection via USB connection, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or any combination of the three. Expect to pay about $20 on top of your existing smartphone data plan for the privilege even if you don't go over your allotted data bucket for your phone's data package. AT&T and Verizon have to eat, after all.
Until not-too-recently, there were ways around paying for tethering - either through Jailbreaking your iOS device, or through a variety of readily available applications in the Android Market. As usual, the carriers aren't any too happy to have their extra revenue taken away, and those Android apps are starting to disappear, while AT&T is helpfully letting its jailbroken customers know that it would be happy to charge them should they wish to continue to tether their devices. There's also the potential problem that some mobile devices, most notably Windows Phone 7, will not allow tethering through the mobile OS, regardless of carrier preferences.
Despite its shortcomings, tethering remains a valid option for those who need to connect on semi-regular basis, but don't really need a full additional subscription added to their phone bill. It's my preferred method of connecting, as it allows me to use a variety of devices - my laptop and my iPad - through my iPhone's Internet connection. Since my carrier offers a wireless package that includes one rate for surfing the Web across North America, it's a good fit for me - a Canadian who frequently finds himself traveling to the United States on business.
5. The "Starbucks" Method
This one's a little bit of a cheat. But depending on the nature of your needs to connect on the go, it's still a perfectly viable option in certain circumstances. More and more coffee shops, airports, restaurants and other public locations are offering connectivity via Wi-Fi hotspots, and increasingly they're free--a way to lure in the business traveller.
They might be a great option if full laptop access to the Internet while on the go is something less than critical--such as if the majority of your business's mobile Internet connectivity needs are not mission critical or need to be location-independent. If you have to hook up to the cloud to deliver your killer presentation from the client's office, you'd probably be better off paying for your connection.
But if it's more like a need to check in with the office from time-to-time, or do a little more e-mail than you can comfortably do on your mobile device, finding the nearest connection to mooch may be perfectly viable for you. And the $60 you'd otherwise earmark for that data plan each month can cover a fair number of venti lattes.
There are plenty of applications that help you find these freely available hotspots. Take a look around at the Wi-Fi options in the places you frequent. If you find yourself in locations with paid hotspot service from roaming providers like Boingo, it may well be worth the $10 per month to get all-you-can-eat connections.