The PC card approach
Most wireless operators sell PC cards that provide compatibility with the carrier 2.5G and 3G network services. In the case of CDMA carriers, those services are 1xRTT and EV-DO; GSM operators consistently sell GPRS and EDGE at lower speeds and HSDPA (or UMTS) for a truly broadband experience.
The idea behind a 3G PC Card is that a laptop will be the worker's primary mobile device. Many IT departments are already familiar with the options available with 3G laptop services, and the carriers generally offer a $20 per-user, per-month discount for users with a mobile telephone account and two-year contract for 3G service. At roughly $60 monthly, 3G laptop services can be cost effective for highly mobile workers who need to manipulate documents and check
The growing availability of BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Symbian and other smartphones has made mobile email a reasonable alternative to laptop 3G services. Waterloo, Ontario-based Research In Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry has been notoriously thrifty with bandwidth, delivering email on the slowest of networks. Nokia Corp.'s recently launched E62 is available from Cingular Wireless with EDGE capabilities, and the initial reports are that the mobile email performance is quite acceptable. Flat-rate plans for mobile data and mobile email range from $30-$60 and can provide highly mobile workers with email and the ability to view and manipulate office documents within reason.
Dial-up networking and device tethering
3G devices can also be 3G modems using Bluetooth or a USB cable for connectivity. This capability is a boon for workers who may want the occasional laptop session without making a two-year commitment to a data card. Some carriers offer dial-up networking services from their 3G devices for a lower rate over a dedicated PC card, and this offers several benefits in terms of price, flexibility and performance.
A lower price for connectivity is generally a good thing, but the biggest advantage is that workers (and IT departments) can try 3G laptop connectivity without making the full commitment. Since many mobile telephone plans allow users to add and drop services on a monthly basis, a $30 investment may prove to be a valuable trial with few repercussions. From an IT perspective, the 3G handset is already in the field, and there are no additional components to deploy.
At a user level, dial-up networking is a matter of carrying a USB cable, or configuring Bluetooth to connect the laptop and the 3G handset. The USB-based approach has significant performance benefits in terms of battery life, because the laptop is no longer powering a wireless radio.
That said, there are no free lunches in dial-up networking with a 3G handset. First, the current generation of 3G devices cannot accept incoming calls while the device is functioning as a modem, and those calls go to voicemail. Many users can accept this limitation, but the second one comes from the carriers themselves. Not all wireless operators support dial-up networking with similar tariffs. Some carriers price this connectivity less than laptop services, while others charge the same price, if not more.
The lesson is buyer beware. If you think you're getting $60 of flat-rate laptop connectivity for $30, then it's worth asking at least three people at your carrier what the policy is, because there are a growing number of users who've been burned with $800 bills for using their 3G handset as a modem.
The size of the screen and keyboard
Some carriers appear to be pricing their data and email services according to the capabilities of the handset. This means that nine-key smartphones have a $20 monthly email package while smartphones with QWERTY keyboards must pay $40 for the same service. Similarly, the carriers appear to be willing to let us use those small keyboards and screens for Web browsing at a much lower price point than our laptops.
3G smartphones and handsets offer a number of connectivity options for mobile workers. Like the early days of mobile telephony, it's easy to overstep the boundaries set by the wireless carriers. Mobile email and mobile data plans vary significantly, and it appears that there's a big difference in price between browsing the Web on a smartphone and using that same smartphone as a modem for a laptop.
The best thing to do is to ask a lot of questions. Don't just go to a Web site and think you have all the answers -- talk to a person. Ask your sales representative. Go into the local store. And don't get tied down by device tethering.
This was first published in October 2006