Total Wi-Fi Freedom

Cell-based services for PCs connect with a click and work in moving trains


Now that nearly every new laptop comes equipped with Wi-Fi, it seems you should be able to plunk your computer down just about anywhere, log on to a wireless network, and get to work. Alas, it's not that simple, because Wi-Fi is neither ubiquitous nor always cheap. That's why new PCs that use both very fast cell-phone networks and Wi-Fi are attractive.

These wireless services provide a broadband-like experience, with download speeds consistently topping 500 megabits per second. There are three competing offerings: Verizon Wireless BroadbandAccess, Sprint Mobile Broadband (FON ), and Cingular BroadBand Connect. A couple of years ago PC makers started providing access to such services with add-on cards. Now they're building the access right into the laptop, which is much more convenient for the user.

I tried Verizon's service on a Lenovo (LNVGY ) ThinkPad T60 and Cingular's service on Dell's (DELL ) forthcoming Latitude D620, both corporate workhorse notebooks. With these cell-based systems, the laptop is tied to a carrier. All manufacturers are planning to offer versions for different carriers, in the U.S. and elsewhere, but changing carriers may require that a technician yank out one radio and install another. Even if that's unnecessary, to get a decent rate you have to lock yourself into a two-year contract.

While Cingular uses a different technology than Verizon and Sprint, I found all the services comparable. But there are differences in coverage. Verizon's high-speed network is the oldest, and it's available in most major metropolitan areas. Sprint's is spottier, and Cingular is in just 16 metro areas. In each case there's backup service at dial-up speeds if the fast network is not available, but it's a painful step down.

FOR NOW, AT LEAST, VERIZON is probably the best choice in the U.S. It offers unlimited data service for $60 a month on a two-year contract, provided you also have a Verizon phone with a voice plan. If you don't have a laptop with built-in wireless, they'll sell you a PC Card radio for just $50. Sprint offers a similar deal with a free card -- which you'll need since no laptops are currently sold with built-in Sprint service.

Cingular may be the best deal for the globally mobile. Unlimited U.S. service costs $80 a month (now available for $60 as a "limited time" offer) for customers with a Cingular voice plan. Its technology is compatible with the high-speed networks being rolled out in Europe and Asia. Cingular offers a $139-a-month plan that provides unlimited data in the U.S. plus 100 megabytes in monthly downloads in more than a dozen countries. If that sounds expensive, you probably have never gotten a bill for international data roaming. Cingular also offers access to several thousand Wi-Fi hotspots for an additional $20 a month.

That last deal highlights the fact that phone-based wireless services should be seen as a complement to Wi-Fi rather than an alternative. Unlike Wi-Fi, these services can be used throughout the coverage area, not just in hotspots. You can connect simply by clicking, as opposed to registering separately for each hotspot. And the service works in moving trains and cars (not while you're driving, please). On the other hand, regular Wi-Fi is generally faster, especially for data uploads, such as posting your vacation pictures to a Web site. And Wi-Fi often performs better than cellular inside buildings.

Laptop makers should be doing a better job of getting Wi-Fi and cell-based wireless to work together. Lenovo at least lets you manage both using its Access Connections software, but you still have to change profiles to switch. Ideally your computer would simply connect you to the best available network without any intervention.

For people who connect away from home or the office only occasionally, these cell-based services are probably not worth the extra cash. But for a road warrior the ability to connect anywhere, anytime, will more than justify the cost.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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