For the better off of ten years, I’ve been a fairly frequent business and pleasure traveler. And staying connected has always been a top priority. Back in the old days, our options were quite limited – usually involving dialup access of some sort. I distinctly recall using a Palm V and modem to quickly check email, without firing up a laptop, while on the road in 1999 or 2000. The situation is much better these days, with numerous and exponentially faster wireless options.
Although both can be great options, for the purpose of this post, we’ll set aside mobile phone tethering and pervasive WiFi services to focus on dedicated data cards. If your (or your employer’s) budget permits, broadband cards (or integrated services) generally provide the quickest and most secure way to hit the Internet from a laptop and run about $60/month. The last few years, I’ve utilized several 3G cards from Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T (plus a 4G Xohm card, pictured above) all over the country.
In choosing a broadband card and service, most modern 3G hardware should be fine. Assuming you can get a good deal (which you usually can), the key factors in making a decision are access, coverage, and contract terms. Of course, if your employer is providing the card, this could be out of your hands. But notice I said 3G. That should immediately rule out T-Mobile with their fledgling 3G network and Clear/Xohm+Sprint with their slowly expanding 4G WiMax network – the footprint is small, and only suitable for folks who rarely need to access data services outside their home area. So that leaves AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint (3G).
I’m a mostly satisfied AT&T iPhone customer these days. But my experiences on their data network haven’t been great – I cannot recommend them. While at Dash, I used an AT&T card. Which worked out just fine for typical web browsing, and the like. However, this was for business use… and our Cisco corporate VPN was blocked. 100% of the time. For a service catering to enterprise customers, I don’t get it. But I do know my card wasn’t very useful. Fast forward a few months, and Kevin Tofel loaned me his Quicksilver review card while at CES. In Vegas, the card was unusable. Granted, the cell networks were probably saturated, but at various times and locations the best I could get was dialup speeds. Back home on the east coast, the Mac OS X connection manager couldn’t even register the card on the network. Total fail. Now my experience could be unique, as Kevin had better luck. But, are you willing to risk a two year contract to find out?
Now we’re down to just Sprint and Verizon. I’ve had a pair of cards from both providers. And there’s not much to say: speeds and coverage were great. Either would be a good bet. It’s probably worth mentioning that Verizon is known for “the network” and Sprint’s customer service hasn’t always been great, if you need to further refine your choice.
And now a word on contracts. Just about all of these require a two year contract. Which can add up. So make sure you’re prepared for a long-term commitment. Additionally, “Unlimited” never really means unlimited access. The current industry standard appears to be a 5GB cap on data usage per month. I’m not sure how strict the carriers are in enforcing that number – I know I’ve gone over without hearing from anyone. However, it’s there and you need to be aware of it. In fact, I’ve got a great new example today. The Boost Mobile (Sprint) brochure I photographed (below) advertises “Unlimited” cellphone service… yet prohibits “abnormally high numbers of calls”, “calls of unusually long duration”, and “unusually high numbers of messages.” How, exactly, does one quantify that?
Click to enlarge: