In a very short time frame we've become constantly connected, able to get our internet fix anytime, anywhere. Most of us are more than a little reliant on our Internet connections. MaximumPC breaks down some of the different devices and services that provide internet access across all fifty states, delivering that delicious online content you crave.
Free Wi-Fi: Location, Location, Location
It seems like every week we hear about a new restaurant chain offering free Wi-Fi, but they're not all created equal. Some require registration before use, while others actually go above and beyond simply providing a dumb Internet pipe. What you get out of the connection will differ between the services.
Ok, everybody knows that you can get free Wi-Fi at Starbucks. (Hey, we're not hanging out there for the coffee.) The service is powered by AT&T's Wi-Fi network, and requires a single click to connect. No username and password, no registration, no credit card required. But there's more available than just a Wi-Fi connection.
Starbucks partnered with Yahoo to create the Starbucks Digital Network. When using Starbucks Wi-Fi you will also have free access to paid areas of The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times, ESPN, and many other sites. Simply visit starbucks.yahoo.com while using a Starbucks Wi-Fi connection.
Barnes and Noble
While lacking the access to the digital content that Starbucks does, Barnes and Noble's AT&T provided Wi-Fi is available at all of their stores – and provides you with the rarified experience of hanging out in one of the few remaining brick-and-mortar bookstores.
There are already tons of places that offer free Wi-Fi, and more are added every day. McDonalds, Panera Bread, many local libraries, even Taco Bell is joining the show with free Wi-Fi at all 5600 of their locations. There are a number of resources for tracking down the best spots for free Wi-Fi. Web sites like wififreespot.com and openwifispots.com will let you search based on location or venue type.
There are also smart phone apps and websites such as openwifispots.com that will let you find a hotspot while on the go. It's worth mentioning that you should always use good security practices when using a public Wi-Fi network. Using websites with HTTPS/SSL encryption will protect login information for banking or social-networking sites. Keeping your system patched and your firewall up is also highly recommended in a public environment.
More Wi-Fi: Paid Services
Sometimes a paid Wi-Fi service is the only option available. A travesty, we know, but the bigger issue is deciding which option is the best choice for you. We'll break down three paid Wi-Fi services that offer subscription based services across the U.S., which leaves out Comcast (which doesn't have such a service), and Verizon (which only allows access for Verizon home internet customers) and point you in the right direction. It's good to keep in mind that while the services below don't have caps or coverage fees some of them do charge fees for roaming (but that is dependent on what network you're roaming on, and can change on a daily basis).
As we've mentioned, AT&T provides free Wi-Fi services at a huge number of popular locations across the country. What you may not know is that AT&T also has a paid Wi-Fi service, known as AT&T Wi-Fi Premier. At $19.99 per month Wi-Fi Premier gives you access to AT&T's entire Wi-Fi network, not just free locations like Starbucks and Barnes and Noble. Premier subscribers also get the ability to roam on partner networks in airports and hotels around the U.S. AT&T also offers a basic Wi-Fi service, which provides customers already using a qualifying home or mobile service free access to AT&T's Wi-Fi hotspots.
Regular travelers looking to get Internet access on the cheap may be better off going with T-Mobile's service. (At least while they can, AT&T has recently put forth efforts to purchase T-Mobile - which may impact available service going forward, or may do nothing more than merge the two networks).
Our hope would be that this would simply increase AT&T's coverage and grandfather in T-Mobile's customer base. Many U.S. airports use T-Mobile to provide wireless service, or provide subscribers access through roaming agreements. T-Mobile's Wi-Fi service costs $9.99 per month for T-Mobile voice subscribers or $39.99 per month if you aren't already a customer.
It may not have the brand recognition that AT&T or T-Mobile have, but make no mistake Boingo is one major up-and-comer among paid Wi-Fi services. Offering over 28,000 hotspots in the U.S. alone, Boingo serves public spaces, shopping malls, universities, and restaurants. Boingo offers a $9.95 laptop plan a $7.95 mobile plan, and a $17.90 combo plan that will allow you to use both a laptop and mobile device simultaneously.
Wi-Fi services are great, but the short-range nature of the technology makes it less prolific from a coverage perspective. If you have to have an always-available Internet connection, a cellular-based option is really your only choice. Though traditionally cellular data connections have been slow and unreliable, 3G and now 4G technologies are rapidly improving and expanding.
The hardware to provide a cellular connection is being packed into more form factors than ever these days, and determining the most appropriate hardware for your needs is the first hurdle. Often the simplest and most elegant hardware solution for mobile broadband is a card that is integrated directly into a laptop. This solution guarantees that the hardware is always with the computer and helps protect against a lost or stolen broadband modem. Many laptop manufacturers will include a broadband card at no cost when you sign up for a monthly data plan.
The simplest option to add wireless broadband capability to a laptop is a USB modem. The hardware is generally plug-and-play, and most carriers have a couple of different models to choose from. Various brands offer 3G and 4G solutions across a variety of carriers, so do some research and find the best choice for the right price. Companies like Radio Shack, Best Buy, and Amazon will have deals and incentives to entice you to purchase your hardware and services through them, so use that to your advantage.
Portable Wi-Fi hotspots like Verizon's 4G LTE MiFi 4510L have got to be the most flexible solution for mobile Internet access. Not only do you get high-speed data to your Wi-Fi enabled laptop, but you can share the Internet connection with up to five distinct devices. The main downside is price, as mobile hotspots are generally $50-$100 more than a USB modem with similar capabilities, but since we're talking about a one-time fee for the hardware it's not too painful a prospect considering what you'll get out of it.
Tethering your smart phone to your PC in order to share the data connection is a classic power user's move, but in the last few years the process has become much more regulated. What began with physically connecting your Blackberry or Windows Mobile phone via USB has morphed into the wireless hotspot utilities built into iPhones and Android handsets such as Sprints Samsung Epic 4G. Each device and carrier has a different process and pricing structure, so check with your carrier to see what capabilities you have on your phone. Also be aware that tethering will eat up your allocated bandwidth in a hurry so keep an eye on your usage to avoid hefty overage charges.
While they aren't technically a method of connecting your PC to the Internet, a tablet device with a 3G or 4G radio can be a handy way to maintain your link to the Internet without resorting to the small screen of a smart phone. Tablets from Apple, RIM, HP, and a host of Android OEM's all offer large screens and increased usability in a device that can maintain its own Internet connection using a 3G or 4G capable radio. Apple's iPad tablets are some of the most popular consumer electronics devices in the world, but Apple doesn't yet offer an iPad with a high-speed 4G radio like some of their competitors.
Without a wireless broadband service, your shiny new data card or hotspot is completely worthless. The biggest problem here is figuring out which service provider will give you the best service for the cost involved. Data speed, reliability, network coverage, and data caps all come into play - and worse they are subject to change and pages (and pages, and pages) of fine print. If speed is of primary concern you should consider the 4G technology that your carrier of choice is offering, and check to ensure it meets the technological requirements of 4G (or if it is simply being used as a marketing tool).
AT&T is one of the most popular cellular networks in the US – or at least, has the biggest subscriber base - and offers decent 3G speeds and a large network. AT&T offers their DataConnect 3G plans for laptops, USB modems, and mobile hotspots at two different tiers; for $35 or $60 you get 3GB or 5GB of data. AT&T only has one 4G plan for this range of devices, which costs $50 for 5GB of data. Tablets and iPads on AT&T are limited to 3G plans, 250MB's for $14.99 or 2GB for $25. (It's worth noting that the tablet and iPad plans are separate, though at first glance appear identical). If you want to tether your smart phone or use the Wi-Fi hotspot feature you're looking at a $45 data plan, which in essence adds 2GB of data (bringing you up to 4GB) and the ability to tether for $20 over the standard 2GB smart phone data plans. Blackberry, iPhone, and 4G plans vary but are offered at the same price points.
Whether you are judging by speed, coverage, devices or customer satisfaction, Verizon has one of the best 4G networks Verizon's data plans for 3G enabled laptops, mobile hotspots, tablets, and USB modems generally follow the same pricing structure. For the majority of their plans Verizon charges $30, $50, and $80 for 2GB, 5GB, or 10GB respectively (3G tablets have an additional tier lower for 1GB of data for $20). Verizon also offers prepaid broadband options so you can pay for your data and use it as needed, without a monthly contract. Verizon smart phone users can add 2GB of data and tethering/hotspot functionality to select phones for an additional $20 a month.
T-Mobile doesn't have the coverage that Ma Bell and Big Red have, but much of their customer base is fanatically loyal. It remains to be seen how the buyout is going to affect T-Mobile customers but there is some overlap in the frequencies that AT&T and T-Mobile support, which should help ease the transition. Unlike the other carriers we've talked about, T-Mobile doesn't start charging you overage fees once you exceed your data cap for the month- they simply throttle your bandwidth. T-Mobile's pricing for their monthly data plans range from $24.99 for 200MB, up to $84.99 for 10GB. Phone tethering and Wi-Fi sharing can be added to your qualifying (minimum $19.95) smart phone data plan for $14.99, but does not gain you any additional data.
While Sprint's 4G network isn't the most widespread, they've been on the 4G train for longer than the other guys. However, the major upside to Sprint's mobile broadband plans is unlimited 4G data across the board, meaning that data caps only apply to 3G usage. Sprint offers 3GB, 5GB, and 10GB plans at $44.99, $59.99, and $89.99 respectively. Gauging the costs for tethering your Sprint smart phone is a fairly nebulous prospect, due to the fact that data plans are bundled with voice. The primary costs are an additional $10 a month ‘premium data' add-on, which allows you to use a smart phone with the plan, and the $29.99 Mobile Hotspot feature. It would seem $39.99 is a lot of money just to enable your smart phone to share its data connection, but you have to remember that this is unlimited data, which is a dying concept in this day and age.
There are a lot of things that go into making the right decision on how to get your Internet connection while mobile, and we've covered a lot of different products and methods that could be of use. But what are the pros and cons for each, and what is the best way to get the most out of the solution you choose?
Wi-Fi vs. 3G/4G
Just like in real estate, a big part of determining the best method to get your Internet fix is location, location, location. If a majority of your internet hours are spent in Barnes and Noble, Starbucks, and your local library then you're likely fine getting by with a free Wi-Fi service. Frequent traveler? One of the airport-centric Wi-Fi services may be worth looking into. If you need a high-speed data connection no matter where you are, you can't beat the flexibility of wireless broadband.
Phone vs. Dedicated Hardware
There is a lot to be said for being able to use your smartphone's data connection to access the internet – since, hey, you're already paying for it and always have it with you. However, there are two big advantages to having a dedicated device for mobile broadband. First, is the data cap on your smart phone going to be realistic if you start sharing it among several devices? Second, does your smart phone carrier support simultaneous voice and data? Either one of these issues could cause major headaches when using your smart phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot, and are good reasons to consider a jump to a USB modem or dedicated Wi-Fi hotspot.
Which Service or Carrier?
Obviously one of the biggest questions in determining which carrier or service deserves your hard earned cash is just how much are you willing to pay for your always-available connection? The second question is coverage – mainly, what kind of coverage area do you usually find yourself in? If you spend all your time in a thriving metropolis chances are you can get a decent 4G signal with any of the carriers, but the more (and farther) you move around the higher the likelihood that you will have to deal with a slower 3G signal. The same principles apply to Wi-Fi services.
Prepaid or Contract?
This is primarily a question for the mobile broadband services, but there is a lot to be said for not being locked into a 2-year contract. Many of the 3G/4G enabled tablets or Wi-Fi hotspots can be used with a service that you only pay for as needed, which saves you money in months when you don't need mobile data. The benefit to be gained by signing a contract for your service is a hefty discount toward the hardware side of the equation. Whether that makes sense for you depends entirely on how long you intend to keep the service, and at what point in the contract you break-even on cost.
The bottom line is that you need to decide what you are trying to get out of a mobile Internet connection, what you're willing to pay for it, and the most effective way of getting what you want (or what you're willing to pay for.) We've talked about all of the tools and technologies but the real decision comes down to what your needs are and how much you're willing to pay to meet your goals.
Image credit: 3D Map of the World Wide Web, vlib.us