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Wireless WAN notebook adapters

Wireless WANs (WWANs) offer many benefits for your road warriors. Here, Craig Mathias discusses wireless wide-area adapters for notebooks and laptops and explores when you might consider purchasing laptops with embedded WWAN adapters.

I just know that the release of Windows Vista has got you thinking that it's time for a new notebook computer....

I've noticed that the useful life of notebooks has stretched out in recent years as the rate of architectural innovation in computers has slowed and as notebooks have come equipped with much more memory and disk capacity, faster processors, Wi-Fi, and much higher-speed interfaces like USB 2.0 and PCI Express in the form of both ExpressCards, the replacement for PC Cards, and PCI Express Mini Cards, the replacement for mini-PCI. With all of this power and configurability, notebooks can now truly replace desktops.

And thanks to mini-PCI and PCI Express Mini Cards, it's possible to embed a variety of functionality -- primarily wireless wide-area network (WWAN) adapters of various forms -- inside the notebook. The convenience is obvious – no need to carry separate adapters, nothing sticking out of the notebook, and even lower aggregate cost. The success of Intel's Centrino model actually raises another question: Why not embed wireless wide-area adapters in the notebook as well? This approach should have all of the convenience of an integrated WLAN, but without the range restrictions.

OK, the first concern here is the cost of the adapter itself. Expect to pay $100-250 for the card. Next, what networks are supported? You can find internal adapters for both UMTS (including the very fast HSDPA service) and EV-DO. Of course, wide-area services like these aren't free (or even cheap); expect to pay $60-80 per month for service. Finally, it's fair to ask about performance. But internal adapters can actually perform quite well -- often better than PC Cards or other external adapters -- because of the careful engineering that goes into building the required antennas into the notebook.

Cost of service is generally the biggest roadblock to using a WWAN to begin with. One simple test -- for road warriors, anyway -- is to compare the monthly recurring cost against paying for Wi-Fi service on a nightly basis at a hotel – figure this at roughly $10-15 per night. So it doesn't take too many nights on the road before the WWAN is a very attractive option.

But there are two good arguments against buying an embedded WWAN adapter. The first of these is that WWAN technology continues to evolve rapidly. So while that shiny new notebook is going to last a good long while, the WWAN card may need to be replaced at some point. It may also need to be swapped out if another carrier is selected. But there's no guarantee a particular adapter will be available for a given notebook. Secondly, you may be able to use Bluetooth to relay from your notebook through your cell phone, obviating the need for an internal adapter and the additional monthly charges that go with it. Check with your carrier to see whether your phone and service plan allow this approach.

Still, if you want to go the embedded route, you can find notebooks from Dell, Sony and others that can be configured with internal WWAN cards in a variety of ways. Serious road warriors and those in vertical applications (such as service fleets) should look into this option. It's also possible that Intel's vision of WiMAX standard in every notebook could make this particular approach to wireless very popular over the next few years, so we may all be going the embedded route over time.


About the author: Craig Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass., specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. The firm works with manufacturers, enterprises, carriers, government, and the financial community on all aspects of wireless and mobile. He can be reached at

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