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Wireless connectivity: Handsets vs. data cards

True mobility still requires multiple devices, but wireless connectivity for laptops can be achieved in various ways, and each requires some serious consideration.

In my recent column on "Mobile device strategies: The single-device paradox," I noted that all of us would like to carry only a single mobile computing and communicating device, but that the complexity and variables inherent in mobile device technology dictate that we will continue to see diversity, rather than convergence, in our mobile arsenal. In other words, we are going to wind up traveling with multiple devices for some time to come.

One of these is clearly going to be a cell phone -- more likely than not a smartphone with a larger display. And I think the notebook computer will be around for some time as well. This computer, of course, also needs communications functionality -- in particular, access to the Web -- and there are now two key ways to deliver this wirelessly (plugging in is so 1990s).

The first alternative is to use a cell phone as what is, in effect, a wireless modem for the notebook. Many handsets can be connected to a notebook via a USB cable or Bluetooth (look for support for dial-up networking) and can thus be used to provide access to the Internet and even voice services as well. You might have to pay a few dollars a month for this service, and there is the potential hassle of getting the configuration right (not always easy) and having to cable or Bluetooth the two together.

The second technique involves what is commonly called a data card, although there are now many form factors -- including USB and ExpressCard -- for these products. Most commonly, though, they are packaged as PC Cards and, with software provided by the carrier, you will have what is effectively wireless DSL service, anywhere your carrier offers coverage. The convenience here is undeniable -- most users just leave the card plugged in and have Internet access almost everywhere they go.

The downside to this approach is cost -- primarily in the form of monthly service, which can run to $60 or even more. You will get no price break if you already have data service on your smartphone, so now it gets really costly. Corporate pricing available to larger firms can mitigate this challenge somewhat. But there is another cost calculation you need to do, and that is related to what you are charged for equivalent (or at least comparable) wireline or Wi-Fi service while traveling.

Hotels generally charge $10 to $15 a day for Internet access, and Wi-Fi service can run $8 to $10 a day unless you have a monthly plan. And, of course, Wi-Fi is of little value if you are in a location with spotty or no coverage, a problem that the carrier-based data card services usually do not have. Nevertheless, you need to divide the price for data card service by the typical daily access fee, and that will tell you on average how many days you need to spend on the road each month to break even.

Of course, the fact that data card service will work almost anywhere in an urban environment is a big plus -- there is no need to wait to get back to your hotel to send an email or access the corporate network. For example, I routinely see commuters on trains happily working away with data cards.

Being frugal (OK, cheap), I like the cellphone-as-modem approach. But, depending upon your carrier, this can be difficult to set up, and there is also the issue of cellphone battery life if you go the Bluetooth connection route as opposed to connecting by USB. But there is a solution that will work for you, and both the handset and data card approaches deserve your consideration.

Craig Mathias
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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