Choose the Right Cellular Data Plan For Your Business

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Do you find yourself wishing that your wireless connection would be faster or more pervasive when you are on the road? Are you frustrated with the Blackberry's or iPhone's puny keyboards and long for your laptop? Then it might be time to consider one of the high-speed data plans from one of the major cell phone carriers. However, good luck trying to get information to make a rational decision--the carriers have made information about these services hard to come by and you need to do a lot of Internet research.

First, some general advice: Start with the carrier that provides your company's voice plan and see if they have the right data plan for your needs. Most carriers offer $20-per-month discounts if you add on and sign a two-year data contract. If Apple's iPhone supported tethering (meaning that you use the broadband modem in the phone and connect it to your laptop) that would be ideal, but it doesn't--you will need to jailbreak your iPhone to use tethering.

You have three choices to get your high-speed wireless fix:

  1. If you are in the market for a new laptop, you can buy one with a built-in data card that matches your carrier and buy a plan that will cover your usage pattern. AT&T and Verizon are the best carriers for this purpose, and any number of Lenovo, Dell, HP, and Sony laptops can come with these modems. The PC makers offer all sorts of rebates as enticements too.
  2. You can get an add-in PC or USB Card from the carrier when you purchase your plan, if you can find that particular page online. T-Mobile didn't offer any on their Web site when we last checked in March. The others offer four or more models. Typically, these work the same way as new cell purchases: you get a better deal if you are willing to commit to a two-year contract. Sprint here even offers a few that have zero cost, after rebates and a contract. The key thing here is to check which of the broadband networks the card supports: some of the older and cheaper models only run on the slower broadband networks. Also, if you are planning on using a non-Windows PC, some only work on Windows.
  3. Or you can use one of the newer smartphones or PDAs that come with broadband modems built-in and connect it to your laptop. If this is what you want, then you have to look at those plans that include tethering, and there are restrictions. An alternative is to use a software tool called it may not always work, and the BlackBerry install takes several steps.

Some other considerations: All of T-Mobile's data plans include unlimited data transfers, but you might have trouble finding a PC Card or USB modem that will work with their service. The other providers have usage limitations and you really have to read the fine print carefully. Verizon limits you to 5GB a month on all of their plans. Sprint has unlimited data plans for $100 a month; their cheaper plans have the 5GB/month limit. AT&T has a few unlimited plans for BlackBerries only.

Some of the carriers offer plans that combine broadband with Wi-Fi access (of course, you have to be in range of their particular Wi-Fi hotspots). If that is important to you, you can save some money when you travel by not having to pay for Wi-Fi coverage.

Here are the links to the current Web pages for the data plans:

David Strom is a former editor-in-chief of Network Computing, Tom's and and an independent network consultant, blogger, podcaster and professional speaker based in St. Louis. He can be reached at

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