September 21, 2009

Picking the Right Mobile Internet Solution

There are three kinds of death in this world. There's heart death, there's brain death, and there's being off the network. --- Guy Almes

All I need is the air that I breathe? Not anymore. In business, we need air conditioning and always-on Internet access too. Cheap, reliable, high speed access is a competitive advantage for cities and countries. In Canada and the US, we pay plenty for little. We don’t have much choice.

With a netbook computer, you’re likely using the Internet extensively, which makes online access essential. Here are your options.
  1. WiFi
  2. WiMax
  3. Cellular
Let’s examine each in more detail.

WiFi is the best choice ... if you can get a signal. That’s the problem. Not enough places offer free access. Each network has its own login process. From my downtown Toronto office, I get signals from
  • the University of Toronto (but I’m not a student, which means no access),
  • OneZone (which blankets downtown but costs $5/hour, $10/day or $29/month plus tax)
  • various other closed networks
If I only needed access from my office, OneZone would be viable, but I travel.

Starbucks gives two hours of free access per day. That's great but there’s no Starbucks near me and I don’t frequent coffee shops. It’s not practical to go to go somewhere else each time you want a signal. There’s free WiFi from Toronto Wireless, but I'm out of range.

Unfortunately, Toronto does not have much free WiFi. The US is more progressive. In lower Manhattan, a business coalition provides free WiFi. In San Francisco, bus stops have free WiFi as an incentive for riders.

If only there were aggregators that would give you low cost access to different networks. Enter Boingo Wireless and iPass Connect. Each has 100,000+ hotspots. There’s considerable overlap. Hotspots include Starbucks, OneZone, McDonalds, FedEx Kinkos, and even some hotels (with iPass). The cost? A reasonable $10 US per month.

What if you're often in locations without accessible WiFi? Like your client's office. You probably can't connect to their network.

Security is also a concern. How safe is a public-access WiFi network? Can your transmissions be intercepted and decoded? The true risks may be limited with appropriate security on your computer and use of sites secured by SSL or VPN. I haven’t evaluated the risks but would not bank online over someone else's WiFi network.

WiMax was meant as the solution for stationary mobile Internet access. It hasn’t taken off. You get reasonable prices (30 GB for $50/month) and decent speeds with Rogers Portable Internet (see blog post). I used it for ages but stopped because the modem needs an electrical outlet. That gets to be a hassle. If your netbook or notebook runs on batteries, why can’t WiMax run from a USB port? The power consumption requirements must be too high.

If you can get a signal on your mobile phone, you can get cellular internet. You simply plug a USB modem or aircard into your computer. You can even buy a computer with an embedded receiver, which is convenient but stops you from moving your connection to another machine. You have access while moving too.

Speed is surprisingly good. The problem is cost. In Canada, you’re paying $30 for 500 MB, $35 for 1 GB, ..., $85 for 5 GB. In addition, you pay the hefty cell phone surcharges for system access and 911. Then taxes get tacked on.

How much data will you need? Hard to say. Luckily, some plans are tiered. If you use more than your allotment of data, you’re bumped up to the next band. So if you use 600 MB, you’re charged the rate for 1 GB. This can save you money over picking a 2 GB plan and using much less each month.

With reservations, I opted for cellular internet access for true mobility. I picked Bell Mobility (which claims wider coverage) over Rogers (which claims faster speeds). I’m told that in real life, speeds are similar but could not compare.

Overall, I’m very pleased with the speed. I’m using 30-50 MB/day with email and light web surfing. That's more than I expected. There must be applications running in the background that chew up bandwidth.

How can you save money? You can bundle services with one provider (cable/satellite, home internet, home phone service, mobile phone). You might have access corporate rates through your employer or your spouse’s.

Since data rates will likely drop, I picked a one year plan.

Imagine always-on Internet access that’s too cheap to measure. Maybe someday. At least we have workable mobile solutions today. With mobile Internet and a netbook, my smartphone is becoming more of a paperweight.


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