3 Easy Ways to Get Mobile Internet Access

by Ronald Pacchiano

We look at three mobile broadband options to keep you connected and productive on the road -- and offer tips on finding a plan to fit your small business budget.

The television show South Park once aired an episode where people woke up one morning to find that the Internet had disappeared. No one was able to get online. There was no email, no news feeds, no online shopping and no social networking. People panicked and chaos ensued. It was funny to watch, but the truth is, we couldn't accomplish much of what we do everyday without the Internet.

Think about the mobile devices currently available to us: notebooks, netbooks, iPads and smartphones -- even iPods and gaming systems. Our whole world revolves around our ability to get online. And for many small businesses and their employees, having 24/7, anytime, anywhere Internet access is not a luxury, it's a necessity.

Fortunately, there's a variety of mobile broadband solutions available today. Price points vary considerably from provider to provider, but the diverse offerings make it possible to find a plan that meets both your needs and your small business budget.

The best deals often require a two-year contract, and most mobile broadband accounts max out at 5GB a month. However, plans more suited to your individual needs are available. The trick is to clearly identify your needs, and then shop for the appropriate plan.

So how do you go about identifying your needs? Start by asking yourself a few questions.

  • What device or devices do you want to use online? (ex. Notebook only, or notebook and smartphone)
  • Are you the only person who will use this connection or will you share it with others?
  • Is a wireless connection important to you or is a wired one acceptable?
  • Is this connection going to be for regular or occasional use?

By taking the time to answer these questions and others like them, you’ll gain a better understanding of your actual needs and can then shop more efficiently for a cost effective solution.

Let’s say based upon the questions above you realize that you’re only going to need this connection a few times per year. In that situation, it might not pay for you to invest in an expensive two-year contract and instead opt for a simple pay-as-you-go plan. Just acknowledging that could save you hundreds of dollars a year.

Let’s take a look at the different methods available for getting your hardware online. The costs for each are very similar, with the biggest differentiator being whether you purchase a contract or pay month-to-month. The methods will vary and there are positives and negatives to each approach.

Option 1: USB Adapter, PC Card or Express Card

The first option available is the USB Adapter, PC card or Express Card. These devices don't require power cords, plug directly into your laptop or netbook, and setup is pretty painless. With a two-year contract, the adapters are typically free or come with generous rebates, which all but nullify the hardware cost.

Most vendors also offer a pay-as-you-go program, in which case you’ll need to shell out for the hardware; prices range from $100 to $250. Data plans range from 100MB to 5GB a month, and typically cost between $15 and $80 per month. The biggest drawback is that you can use this option only to get your PC online – you can't share it with any other mobile devices.

For this option, I recommend T-Mobile as a provider. For $39.99 a month, with or without a contract, the webConnect plan grants you access to not only T-Mobile's 3G and EDGE networks, but also its high-speed HSPA+ network.

You also have free, unlimited, nationwide access to T-Mobile’s HotSpot network.  Best of all, should you exceed the 5GB data cap, unlike other carriers that charge you expensive overage fees, T-Mobile instead simply throttles back the speed of your service until the next billing cycle.

Option 2: Tether to your Smartphone

Tethering lets you link your cell phone to your PC via either USB or Bluetooth dial-up networking (DUN); once connected, your PC can use the phone as a cellular modem, providing it with online access via your Smartphone’s existing data plan. A wide assortment of smart phones from numerous communication vendors support cellular tethering. Check with your carrier to see if your phone is compatible, or if you’ll need to upgrade.

Tethering is free with some smartphones, such as Sprint’s HTC EVO 4G. While others carriers, like Verizon Wireless, charge an additional $20 a month for a 2GB plan and $30 a month for a 5GB plan; this is over the cost of your phone’s existing $29.99 required data plan. The aforementioned EVO has no data cap when used in this manner.

Tethering is an attractive option because you already own the hardware and add and remove the capability from your cellular phone plan as needed. If you need mobile Internet access one month, and don’t need it again for the next six, you don’t have to pay for it. The downside is that this method shares the same limitation as the USB adapter and PC/Express card and only provides Internet access for the notebook it's connected to. 

Option 3: Wireless Mobile HotSpots

If you would like to do more than just get your laptop online, then this last option is what you want. Dedicated mobile wireless hotspots are perfect for creating an instant, secure Wi-Fi network that numerous Wi-Fi enabled devices can easily access and share simultaneously. These hotspots are about the size of a 3.5 floppy disk and have a battery life of about 4 hours. Connecting your notebook to one of these hotspots is very easy. All you need do is power up the hotspot and search for it. Once found, enter the provided pass code to complete the connection.

You have a few different hotspots available. Verizon Wireless offers the MiFi 2200 Intelligent Mobile Hotspot which fully supports Verizon’s 3G network. This unit is free with a two-year contract, $70 with a one-year contract and $269.99 if you pay month-to-month. Verizon’s Mobile Broadband plan gives you 5GB per month for $59.99.

Next we have the Sprint Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot, which is very similar in design and operation to Verizon’s MiFi, except it's capable of both 3G and 4G speeds. It is also equipped with a microSD card slot, which can provide up to 16GB of shared network storage. The Sprint Overdrive costs $99 after a $50 mail-in rebate, and requires a two-year service contract. Sprint's 3G/4G Mobile Broadband Connection Plan is $59.99 per month and provides 5GB of data per month on the 3G network and unlimited data on the 4G network.

Finally, I want to mention Virgin Mobiles MiFi 2200 mobile hotspot. This unit is just about identical to the Verizon offering and costs $149.99, but it provides you with unlimited mobile data on a 3G network for only $40 per month, with no contract or activation fees. And in case you weren’t aware of it, Virgin Mobile devices operate on the Sprint 3G network. 

In addition to the dedicated mobile hotspots listed here, a number of new cell phones offer the capability to emulate a Wi-Fi hotspot. The Motorola Droid X and the above-mentioned Sprint HTC EVO 4G both offer this feature, for about $30 more per month.

Anytime, anywhere online access can be very appealing. When considering a mobile broadband solution please remember that wireless data carriers change their plans, service offerings and discounts on a fairly regular basis. What was accurate at the time of this writing might not be available by the time you read this. Be sure to visit the service provider’s site for the latest pricing. With a little leg work, you’ll be able to find a mobile plan that’s right for you.

Ronald V. Pacchiano is a systems integrator and technology specialist with expertise in Windows server management, desktop support and network administration. He is also an accomplished technology journalist and a contributing writer for Small Business Computing.

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This article was originally published on Friday Sep 10th 2010
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