Pay-as-You-Go Internet

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The recession isn't likely to take a vacation this summer, but there's no reason you can't. In fact, if business is slow, this may be the perfect time for a month-long home swap, or to hit the road with your camper and French poodle, Steinbeck style. Either way, with a little planning, you can still get work done by taking your virtual office with you. And if you're careful, you can set up your virtual office without spending a lot of money.

The first item on your to-do list is to figure out how you'll get broadband Internet access while you're away. This week let's take a look at your options, including two new contract-free, pay-as-you-go 3G mobile broadband services. Next week, how to keep your communications costs down when you're away from home.

Planning Your Internet Access

We've all done dial-up. And it still works in a pinch--that is, if your laptop has a dial-up modem (most current models don't).

Otherwise, here are your primary options for getting online at reasonably fast connection speeds.

Research Internet access options. Find out if the place where you'll be staying has Wi-Fi or wired Internet access. If it does, you're golden. If not, is there a nearby café, library, or other establishment offering free Wi-Fi? You can find one before you go by searching for Wi-Fi hotspots in your vacation area.

Tether your mobile phone. Some mobile phones can be tethered to a laptop wirelessly or via a cable. Tethering is a process in which your mobile phone serves as a wireless modem, connecting your computer to the Internet.

There are plenty of downsides, though. Computerworld's Mike Elgan put it this way: "For most users, who would like to connect from anywhere, tethering is a ridiculous, burdensome kludge created artificially by carrier greed."

In short: Tethering can be expensive, slow, and cumbersome to set up. Also, you can't talk on your mobile phone while it's serving as your laptop modem.

Get a 3G connection. If you'll be moving around a lot during your time off, or there's no Wi-Fi or wired Internet access where you'll be, 3G mobile broadband--Internet access delivered over a cellular data network--might be your best option. (Check out "A Day in the Life of 3G" for test results using 3G data networks in 13 different U.S. cities.)

While 3G Internet access is fairly widespread, especially in urban areas, and is offered by the major U.S. wireless carriers, it's by no means ubiquitous. There may be rural areas where 3G isn't available, though you may be able to use a slower 1x cellular data network in those cases.

3G service has other drawbacks. Some notebooks and netbooks come with a built-in 3G cellular modem (either standard or as an optional upgrade). But these modems are usually tied to a particular carrier's 3G service. And in most cases, using the 3G connection requires signing a one- or two-year contract and agreeing to pay a monthly fee, usually $40 and up. Here are a few sites to get you started:

If you need to avoid 3G service contracts, you have two primary pay-as-you-go 3G cellular alternatives, both of which only became available in the past few months: the Novatel Wireless MiFi and Virgin Mobile USA Broadband2Go.

Novatel Wireless's MiFi is a compact router that lets you create a wireless hotspot using a mobile broadband network. The device is available from Sprint and Verizon Wireless. If you pay full price for the MiFi ($400), you can then pay $15 per day for unlimited use, with no contract.

That may be okay for those who need only a day's worth of 3G cellular Internet connection multiple times throughout the year. However, if you need MiFi for Internet connectivity for several consecutive weeks or more, the $15-per-day plan is prohibitively expensive. Otherwise, you'd have to opt for a $60 monthly data plan (for 5GB of data) or $40 monthly plan (for up to 250MB)--both of which require contracts.

Virgin Mobile USA's Broadband2Go is a USB 3G cellular modem ($150 at Best Buy) that you can use with blocks of broadband cellular Internet usage without a contract. You have four plans to choose from: 100 MB (for use within 10 days) for $10; 250MB for $20, 600MB for $40, or 1GB for $60 (these three plans give you up to 30 days to reach the maximum usage limit).

If you're planning to be gone for several weeks, the 1GB plan might serve your needs. But you'll pay about $210 total ($150 for the device, $60 for the 1GB plan) for the privilege. Also, be careful: Playing YouTube videos, downloading iTunes songs and movies, and such, will quickly eat into your data allotment. If you expect to download lots of multimedia content, you might want to do that at a nearby Wi-Fi café and save your Broadband2Go plan for e-mail and basic Web surfing.

Use WiMAX--if you can find it. WiMAX is a fast, limited-range wireless network technology that far surpasses Wi-Fi's physical and speed limitations but offers nowhere near the expanse in coverage of today's 3G cellular data network. Currently, WiMAX is offered in only a handful of U.S. cities. Also, service from Comcast and others usually requires a contract.

The Wrap Up

Unfortunately, widely available, broadband Internet access is a business primarily controlled by wireless phone carriers--and we all know how consumer-friendly they can be. Otherwise, fast Internet service is a spotty, patchwork affair in cities and often nonexistent in rural areas and small towns.

I've been testing Virgin Mobile USA's Broadband2Go and so far, I've found it works well. (I'll have a full review soon.) It's probably your best, least restrictive option for affordable broadband Internet access, if you'll be roaming frequently or will be staying somewhere without a wired or wireless Internet connection.

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Mobile Computing News, Reviews, & Tips

12 Terrific Gadgets for Summer Travel. With the travel season in full swing, we've put together a guide to a dozen devices worth adding to your carry-on. Among them: RIM's unlocked BlackBerry Bold, which works internationally. You can save money by buying a local SIM card in the country you're visiting and then plugging the SIM card into an unlocked Bold.

Pocket HD Camcorders: Which One is Best? Pocket HD camcorders, costing around $200 or so, are a hot item this summer, with new and recent models from Pure Digital, Creative Labs, Sony, and Kodak. Which one captured the best video quality (but had the weakest microphone) in our tests? Browse our HD camcorder reviews to find out.

Sony Point-and-Shoot: Cheap, Easy-to-Use. Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-S980 is only $150 and offers some nice specs for the price (such as a 12-megapixel sensor and 4X-optical zoom lens). We just wish its image quality were better.

Suggestion Box

Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. You can follow him on Twitter. Jim is also the co-author of Getting Organized in the Google Era, to be published by Crown in March 2010. Sign up to have Mobile Computing e-mailed to you each week.

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