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Wi-Fi hot spot plan or 3G wireless data service

Should you use a Wi-Fi hot spot plan or a 3G wireless data service?

For frequent business travelers, would you recommend paying for a Wi-Fi hot spot plan or 3G wireless data service?

Personally, I have both a Wi-Fi hot spot plan and a 3G wireless data service plan, and I would be hard pressed to give up one. But choosing a service plan depends on mobile device capabilities, where Internet access is required, and how much you're willing to pay for it.

Business travelers that don't require continuous Internet access can often be satisfied by a Wi-Fi hot spot plan. Wi-Fi hot spots are readily available in hotels, airports, business centers and cafes. Odds are excellent that you can find a hot spot nearby, but you may have to make an effort to get there. However, that hot spot may not be covered by your service plan, so check the directory for locations in cities and airports visited often, and roaming agreements that increase coverage.

3G wireless data is a better fit for mobile professionals who need on-the-go Internet access, checking mail frequently throughout the day, or in transit (e.g., during cab rides, commuting on the train). 3G coverage isn't available everywhere, but high-speed access is now often found in major metropolitan areas, falling back to slower 2.5 or 2G networks elsewhere. Look carefully at high-speed coverage areas before you buy; if you're making a big investment, have a few users trial the service first to assess coverage. You'll also pay more for 3G wireless data services than for hot spot services. For example, Boingo Wireless unlimited hot spot access now goes for $22/month. Verizon Wireless unlimited high-speed data service runs about $45/month (before corporate discounts.)

The most flexible solution is an Internet access roaming plan that lets workers use the most convenient service at each location. For example, see FiberLink's Wide Area Wireless Solution, which uses a single desktop client (Extend360) to deliver Internet access over broadband, Wi-Fi, and 3G (1xRTT or EV-DO) wireless. I use this Fiberlink client on my laptop where EV-DO is readily available -- I find it more convenient that hunting for a Wi-Fi hot spot. Where EV-DO is not available, if I have much work to do, I'll look for a nearby Wi-Fi hot spot because the extra speed worth the effort. If there's no hot spot handy -- at least no hot spot in my client's directory -- then I'll use 1xRTT for more limited email checking, etc. Where Wi-Fi, 3G, and hotel broadband cannot be found, I can always resort to dial-up.

I also have an ultra-light laptop with embedded Wi-Fi and no PC slot in which to use a 3G card. And I have a smartphone with embedded 3G and no open slot that would accommodate a Wi-Fi SD or CF card. Obviously, each of these devices is limited to a single service -- and there are many situations where mobile device capabilities determine the "best" or only viable service plan. In particular, 3G cards and devices tend to be sold in conjunction with wireless service plans, so choose your carrier first, then choose a mobile device that's compatible with that carrier's network.

This was first published in July 2006

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