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EV-DO and the promise of always-on remote access

EV-DO, the wireless broadband technology, is explored in this tip. It covers the configuration, speed, coverage, download limit and expense of EV-DO.

EV-DO ("Evolution Data Optimized") is a wireless broadband technology that comes with the promise of always-on, high-speed remote access to the office and the Internet. Like Wi-Fi in its early days, EV-DO started as a fringe technology and has trickled through organizations as the value of almost-anywhere remote access has become clear. It has become so common on laptops that manufacturers are offering built-in EV-DO cards from a choice of wireless vendors.

I've been using a Verizon Wireless Broadband Access PC5740 card with a $60 per month Broadband Access account on my Windows XP SP2 laptop to access the Internet and to connect to my office via a Cisco VPN.

Setting up an EV-DO card is relatively straightforward. Verizon ships its card with a CD-ROM containing the driver software and configuration utility. Install the software, choose whether you want the software to control your Wi-Fi card and the EV-DO card, plug in the PC card, and start up the utility. The utility connects to the wireless network and registers the card. Then you just click the utility's "connect" button to start your session. Like a cell phone, you need to remember to disconnect at the end of your session, which is mildly annoying.

How fast is fast?
Verizon quotes download speeds of 400 to 700 Kbps, and my experience showed that this is an accurate representation of average performance. This is certainly slower than many Wi-Fi hot spots, though. Uploads are also much slower, so tasks like uploading a large file to a file-share over a VPN can be time consuming. Surfing the Web, accessing Web sites over a VPN, running remote desktop sessions, and downloading email all worked flawlessly.

Coverage around metropolitan areas was generally good but was certainly weak inside large office towers and in rural and coastal areas where cell phone coverage is limited. Where coverage is weak (only one or two bars), I had trouble with VPN connections dropping, and file transfers took longer than normal.

The great advantage of EV-DO, though, is for someone on the road, in an airport lounge, at a cafe, or even in an airplane before takeoff. The ability to keep communicating outside the range of a Wi-Fi access point is seductive.

Download limits
Verizon sells this technology as "unlimited with an asterisk." The asterisk says that data transfer beyond 5 GB/month is considered "non-permitted use" and is grounds for immediate termination of the account. This is neither customer friendly nor good business practice. In real-world experience, though, none of my clients has exceeded 3 GB, never mind a whopping 5 GB. But this is worth pointing out to users so they don't suddenly find themselves cut off.

Verizon also sets a number of limits for use, meaning that the company doesn't want you using its network to host any services on your computer, run illegal file-sharing, or access peer-to-peer systems such as BitTorrent. Verizon does allow for normal business use, including email, Web browsing, intranet access and VPN connections.

Outside the U.S.
Since a number of my clients travel internationally, I checked the rate plan for Verizon's EV-DO footprint in Europe and Asia. Verizon offers a "GlobalAccess" plan, but this plan is $129 per month and allows only 100 MB of monthly data transfer in most European countries. The additional charges start at $2 per MB and would add up quickly, making for a hefty data bill. Roaming in Canada racks up a $2.05 per MB data charge, and Mexico is a hefty $5.12 per MB. I'd recommend avoiding any international roaming until Verizon revises its pricing to a more reasonable level.

Managing an EV-DO deployment
Verizon's utility software behaves well with standard system-imaging tools, so the software can be pre-installed and only enabled when a user adds an EV-DO card to the system. Verizon also does a nice job with billing, so administrators can add a user's name to each account and easily track usage on a per-card basis. Like a cell phone, these cards require a two-year contract for service.

Is it worth the cost?
What started a year ago as an $80 per month add-on to a cell phone plan and a $150 hardware purchase has come down to a more reasonable $60 per month for up to 5 GB of data service and an inexpensive (or sometimes free) PC card.

Compare this to five nights at a mid-range hotel, where Wi-Fi access costs $10 a day, plus a T-Mobile Hotspot account for the occasional work session at a Starbucks. These Wi-Fi connections can easily add up to more cost in a week than an EV-DO card for an entire month.

With an EV-DO card, you can give up the vagaries and variable cost of Wi-Fi hot spots. It's not quite always-on Internet access, but it's pretty close.

Setting EV-DO expectations

  • Unlimited means 5 GB of data transfer
  • In-building coverage can be unusable
  • International access is prohibitively expensive
  • Windows connection utility is awkward

About the author: Rik Ahlberg is a principal and co-founder of Empiric Partners, LLC, a proactive technology management firm focused on clients with highly mobile professionals who have little patience for downtime.

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