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What type of wireless Internet is best for you?

An overview of the available options when it comes to choosing a wireless internet provider
Views: 722 Created 11/28/2008

So you've made the decision to get a wireless Internet plan, or you're at least doing your research to see if it's suitable for your needs. Excellent. You'll soon find out that there may be no more liberating service. Imagine not only being free from the binds of the office, but free from any specific location. You can work on a train, in a coffee shop, while you do laundry. All because of evolving Internet connectivity technology.

As with many technological advances, sifting through wireless Internet options can become overwhelming if you don't know what you're getting into. What makes wireless Internet even more confusing is that there are three different types to choose from -- and even then, there are options that might not be available in your area. So let's discuss the three main ways to connect to the Internet wherever you are.

Wi-Fi Hotspots

The best known way to wirelessly connect to the Internet is through Wi-Fi. This is so common these days that nearly every new laptop comes with a Wi-Fi card already installed. If you use a laptop at home, chances are you connect to your router via Wi-Fi. Yet it can be so much more than that.

There are tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots nationwide. Some of these, like at your local laundromat, coffee shop, or even airport, are free. These of course are the best. You normally just have to agree to certain terms and conditions, and you're in.

Unfortunately, most hotspots charge a fee for access. Perhaps the most common place to use Wi-Fi is Starbucks, which uses AT&T Wi-Fi Connect. When you get your coffee and sit down to your table, you connect to the Internet and go through the sign-up screen. You can pay with a credit card there, and then you'll be connected. (FYI: Starbucks Card users can get free access.) The same goes with many airports and train terminals.

The downside to Wi-Fi is that it only covers a range of about 100 meters. This is fine for coffee shops and laundromats, but falls short for widespread service. The upside is that it provides among the fastest speeds in wireless Internet technology.

WiMAX

WiMAX is a relatively new and highly debated concept in wireless Internet. In the U.S., Sprint is undertaking a massive WiMAX initiative, partnering with Clearwire in an effort to cover the nation. This, they think, can be a fourth generation cellular phone network as well as a high-speed, wireless data network.

There is plenty to know about WiMAX technology, far more than we could possibly cover in this article. Essentially, it was developed as a way to cover large urban areas with fewer towers. Since a WiMAX signal can run for miles and miles, it would make sense to place it in high density areas, thereby cutting down on hardware needs. It also can provide better service to rural areas, since the signal can stretch further.

The main advantage to WiMAX is the range. You can get high-speed Internet even if your nearest tower is ten miles away. There are two major downsides. First is the pice of equipment, which can be in the $300 to $400 range. Also, the technology is not widespread yet, so it is difficult to procure WiMAX services. However, that could all change in the near future.

Mobile Broadband

Ideal for heavy travelers, mobile broadband services are usually offered through cellular operators. In the U.S. this means AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon. Other carriers, like Alltel and Cricket, also offer mobile broadband services, but only on a regional level. The first three offer nationwide coverage, meaning you can move to most major markets and still get top-notch reception.

Mobile broadband is essentially what these cellular operators use to power their smartphones, like the BlackBerry or iPhone. The same data network can send signals to a broadband modem. In fact, in the cases of Verizon and Sprint, mobile broadband customers get an even better network than smartphone users, as most markets have EVDO Revision A technology, while smartphones still run off the Revision 0 signal.

The advantage to mobile broadband is its wide range of coverage. Get cell signal? Then you can probably take advantage of mobile broadband. The disadvantages are speed -- mobile broadband can get just over a megabit per second, while WiMAX and Wi-Fi can go much faster -- and the carrier-imposed limits. For instance, Verizon institutes a 5GB cap for it's highest mobile broadband plan.

So there you have it. Three types of wireless Internet. Hopefully this helps jump start your search for a service. After all, you can't pick the best service if you don't know which best fits your needs.

Cooper Lang is a contributing writer for GoingCellular.com - a top resource for information on cell phones that includes reviews of cellular phone providers like Verizon as well industry news and information. http://www.goingcellular.com

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