Cellular Broadband for Dummies (Because Wi-Fi is for Wussies)

By Sean Captain

Using Wi-Fi around town is like panhandling. You schlep from coffee shop to coffee shop, looking for bandwidth handouts; or you rummage through the neighborhood airwaves, searching for unencrypted home networks.

Random routers may give you a crust of bread and such. But god bless the child who's got his own always-on, high-speed connection from a cell phone company. Laptop data cards have been trying the patience of early adopters for years. But three US services now offer bona-fide broadband download speeds in the 400-to-700-kilobits-per-second range. Jump to read about the state of high speed cellular data.

Verizon kicked off wireless broadband in the US about two-and-a-half years ago with Evolution-Data Optimized (EV-DO). In late 2005, Sprint followed with its own EV-DO service, and Cingular switched on its High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) network. Fast service from T-Mobile is nowhere in sight. So Catherine Zeta-Jones groupies should stick to IM-ing on their SideKicks.

Sporting one of the wireless broadband connections on a laptop feels as liberating as getting a drivers license and no longer having to ask mom and dad for rides to the mall. I've tried out cards from Verizon and Sprint in New York City and had no trouble connecting from anywhere. If you're someone who needs to be connected all the time — say a journalist filing articles from the field — consider a wireless broadband plan.

That's assuming you live someplace that has the service. Cingular currently covers over 60 cities and their burbs with HSDPA. Sprint claims to support about 220 communities, where 153 million people live. Verizon says its broadband reaches half the country.

All three companies charge $80 per month for a standalone, two-year, unlimited data plan. But they lop off $20 monthly for customers who also have all but their cheapest voice plans. Notebook cards cost from $50 to $100.

You can save an extra $20 per month if you forego a laptop card and instead use a broadband-equipped cellphone as a modem, connected via USB cable or Bluetooth. The downside is that most phones can't provide data and voice service at the same time. (But Cingular's LG CU500 can.)

These phones all work as broadband modems:

Cingular
LG CU500


Sprint
LG FUSIC
Palm Treo 700P
Samsung A900
Samsung A920


Verizon

LG VX-8100 LG VX-9800LG Chocolate
Motorola RAZR V3c

You might be thinking you can offset the cost of a wireless plan by dropping your cable or DSL service at home. But if you're more than a casual Web surfer, you'll find this frustrating — especially if your pad isn't in a prime location to get a signal. I tried going wireless-only and went nearly mad waiting for episodes of Battlestar Galactica to download. (Okay, I'm a sci-fi nerd.) And even if you get all five bars, you'll suffer through any sizeable uploads - like sending a card's worth of candid shots from that bachelor party to your Flickr account. Upload speeds are in the paltry 50-70 kbps range.

Relief is in site, though. The next version of EV-DO, called Revision A, will push the upload speeds into the 300-700 kbps range. (Hello video conferencing!) Sprint and Verizon will be rolling it out in early 2007. Then in late 2007 or 2008, Sprint introduces a new technology called WiMax with download speeds between two and four megabits per second. (Yee haw!) Cingular is being mum about upgrades. But Sierra Wireless, which makes a lot of the data cards out there, has already announced an HSDPA model that can handle double the speeds currently offered by Cingular's network.


Sean Captain is a nerdy Manhattan hipster and freelance journalist who covers technology for great outfits including The New York Times, Wired, Slate, Popular Science, Real Simple, and Laptop Magazine. When he has time to spare, he posts to his technology blog at seancaptain.typepad.com.