As a full-time technology writer, I repeatedly get the same question: “what’s the most empowering technology you use for your job?” Each and every time I respond the same way. It’s not a particular computer brand, nor is it a specific browser or operating system. For me, it’s a technology I’ve used since 2004: 3G wireless broadband.
I can work on practically any computer and of course, I prefer some browsers, operating environments and applications over others. However the ability to work nearly anywhere thanks to today’s 3G wireless broadband is as much of an enabler today as it was for me in 2004. Along the way these past five years, I’ve learned a few things that might be useful to you.
1. Location, location, location! Before you decide to take the 3G plunge, do your homework with the carrier’s coverage maps. AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile are the big four players, although I’d call them the big three-and-a-half since T-Mobile only just began their 3G roll-out. You’ll want to check the coverage maps for your home office area as well nearby work locations, not to mention places in between.
I failed to do this once before when I switched from Verizon Wireless to AT&T and I paid the price. A $175 Early Termination Fee, to be exact, and that was only three months into finding out that AT&T didn’t have nearly the coverage I needed at the time.
2. Once you sign up, give the service a good test. Had I followed my own advice here, I would have saved the $175 ETF, but I didn’t. Most carriers have a return period between 14 and 30 days for your service. Once you get service, use the heck out of it in various locations and make sure it’s going to work for you where you need it most.
You may have to pay a small restocking fee for any hardware plus a month’s service, but that’s far less than $175 out of pocket and possibly useless hardware. You’ll also want to bookmark a site that can help you test your uploads, downloads and network latency; there are several out there, but I recommend SpeedTest.net.
3. Consider the form factor of the hardware. Back in the day, PC Cards were the standard adapter of choice for 3G modems. Today, you can find them in ExpressCards, USB and integrated right into a laptop. Since I work with multiple devices, I opted for USB and I’ve never regretted that decision. Just about any computer I use or borrow to review can take advantage of my 3G USB adapter. If you’re set on using one device and it has an ExpressCard slot, maybe that’s the best for you. I still lean towards USB because I not only consider the devices I use today, but the ones I might use tomorrow. They don’t all come with ExpressCard slots, but you can bank on USB for a few years to come. Integrated 3G is very nice to have since there’s nothing sticking out from your computer, but it’s limited to the one device due to the integration.
Some adapters even have useful secondary features: my USB727 on Verizon’s network offers a miniSD slot, making for a card reader. And the AT&T Quicksilver card I’m testing right now includes the drivers and software on-board, negating the need for any downloads or optical drive to get going.
4. Can your phone be a modem too? For a good year back in 2005, I opted to use my handset as a 3G modem. I had an XV6700 handset on the Verizon Wireless network for which I was already paying $30 monthly for 3G service. At that point, paying $60 for another 3G adapter of some type wasn’t appealing. Most carriers offer a low-cost add-on option so that you can “tether” your 3G handset for modem use. You can physically connect the handset to your computer through USB or if both support Bluetooth, you can use a wireless connection to get broadband to your computer.
Some third party companies offer software to get around the carrier charge of tethering, so dig around if that option sounds appealing. I used to use an application called PDANet for this purpose and it worked great, but supports Windows only. Some phones have Internet Sharing software built in and it’s actually pretty easy to make the connection. To get a feel for how simple the concept is over Bluetooth, check our video tutorials for using a Windows Mobile device for either a Mac or a PC. Yes… you can actually use a Windows Mobile phone as a modem for a Mac!
5. Share that connection with a small team. If you’re a team of two or three web workers, you don’t all need to shell out $60 a month or more for 3G service. Both Windows and Mac OS X allow for sharing an Internet connection. Most people think that means a network or WiFi connection, but it applies to 3G as well.
You can also go with a hardware solution to share the connection. Cradlepoint makes a number of 3G routers that take the signal from a 3G adapter and share them over a WiFi connection. Dave Winer is the most recent Cradlepoint convert I know of, so you can follow along with impressions as he puts it through the grind. Likewise, Novatel Wireless offers an all-in-one solution called the MiFi that provides both the 3G signal and WiFi hotspot for sharing; no adapter is needed.
6. Optimize your network settings. A few months ago, I noticed that the same 3G card was offering different speeds on different devices, even though my location was constant. A little research indicated that one device was better optimized for broadband than the other, but that was easily resolved on the slower device. A small Windows utility called TCP Optimizer gave the slower device a boost, making the two on par with each other. In fact, I saw a 15% increase in download speeds and double that improvement in uploads using this utility.