March 19, 2005
(Free) Wireless Internet Via Your 3G Cell Phone
A LawTech Guru feature article by Jeffrey Beard
A LawTech Guru feature article by Jeffrey BeardWi-Fi broadband is really great, isn't it? Except when there's not a hotspot around when you need one. Or when you find it, but can't get on. What do you do on commuter trains? I've recently revisited another road warrior option worth consideration, now that third-generation 3G networks are more widely available:
A number of newer cell phones are 3G-capable, meaning they can transfer data at broadband speeds. Having faster-than-dial-up Internet access in increasingly larger cell phone coverage areas is key. If you're reasonably tech savvy, your cell phone can become a USB modem.
For more information about cellular data network providers, the recent PC Magazine article, "Wireless Without Borders: Networks for Those on the Go", is a must read. (My thanks to Brett Burney, fellow legal tech guru over at Thompson Hine, for the link.) Suffice it say, the PC Mag article validated my choice last year to sign up with Verizon Wireless. Verizon may not have been as quick to release new Treos, but their network has been phenomenal in my personal experience so far. Obviously, each person's experience may vary.
Caveat: Things change quickly in this market, and not all services are offered in all locations. It's common to get conflicting answers even from different employees of the same carrier. Do not rely upon the information presented here. It is best treated as a guide only, chronicling my individual experience, and does not provide legal advice or conclusions in any way. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the need to verify everything with your cell carrier before proceeding.
Some carriers will tell you that you absolutely need an expensive data plan to do this (possibly an additional $40-$80/month). However, like most people, I prefer using Wi-Fi connections since they're much faster. Therefore, I'm not planning to use the cell modem all that much, so this doesn't meet my needs for the cost. With some cell providers, with the right voice plans (generally the national plans), 3G phone models, cables, and software, it may be possible to have cell Internet access for free or nearly free. By this I mean some only use up airtime minutes, with no additional data plan charges. If it's used during free evening and weekend minutes, then it shouldn't cost anything extra.
So what kind of speed am I talking about? On average, with a good signal you're probably looking at 60-120kbps download speed on the low end, with 300-500kbps on the high side. It depends on the network type and location. Even at its worst, it's definitely snappier than dial-up, and believe me, it's quite usable. It sure beats the incredibly slow 14.4kbps speed common on the older 2G or 2.5G cell networks. (Been there, done that, and moved on quickly.) It's possible the highest speed networks may require a data plan subscription. But then one has to evaluate whether it's worth the added expense.
What Do I Need?
It varies with the cell provider and phone hardware, but in essence, the following is needed:
To be candid, I had low expectations for the MOK (I've been disappointed with cell connectivity kits previously), but it was worth it. While the software is somewhat basic, it auto-detected the phone, installed the phone's Windows modem driver, and created several DUN connections. It appeared I was all set in just minutes. How often does that happen? Right -- too easy. There were a few minor problems needing resolution before I could get online.
The two new DUN connections for Verizon Wireless wouldn't log in. They had incomplete login information configured. In addition, the new VZAccess Manager program kills my Wi-Fi card utility in the system tray. Each time after running the VZAccess Manager, I need to reboot Windows to get back the Dell Wireless WLAN Utility. The latter is not a serious problem, simply because I don't need to run the Verizon access software again. The DUN connection was easily solved with a little Googling for the necessary login information (see below). With that solved, to log on, I simply use my new Windows dial-up connection. This is actually much faster than launching the Verizon software.
Treo owners may want to check out PdaNet. This program enables a Treo smartphone to be a wireless modem for your PC. (PdaNet info courtesy of Brett Burney.)
Also, for select LG, Samsung, and Sanyo phones, BitPim is an open source program that lets you sync the following items: PhoneBook, Calendar, WallPapers and RingTones. This isn't for Internet access, just another option for transferring data to/from these models to a PC. I've not tried BitPim, so I can't say how well it works. As I was looking for a way to put my own pictures and ringtones on the phone now that I have the special USB cable, this has some definite possibilities. However, it occurs to me that using two different syncing programs with the phone could open the door to new problems.
How Do I Get Access?
You could do what I did: Talk to your cell provider and go Googling to confirm you received good information. I've found the following links to be quite helpful:
If you happened to wonder whether this is scamming the cell phone carrier, so did I. That's why I called Verizon Wireless -- twice -- for confirmation. I let them know exactly what I wanted to do, and asked whether I would be charged for usage without a data plan subscription. I received essentially the same answer on both calls, which corresponded with what my local Verizon rep told me: Their 1X phones (short for 1XRTT, their intermediate high-speed network) are already data-enabled for the other data services (e.g., the web browser and their "Get It Now" service for downloading games, ringtones, etc.). I noticed from this comparison of cell carriers' data plans that 1XRTT networks peak around 144kbps, while the newer EV-DO networks provide faster average speeds of 300-500Kbps with bursts as high as 2.4Mbps. From my speed tests and the 1X indicator on the phone, I'm apparently using the 1X network, but it's still very good and the price is certainly right.
Other than using my airtime minutes, Verizon Wireless stated I would not be charged for using their high-speed ISP service on my LG cell phone. Nights and weekends are free. One rep told me the only catch was that without my subscribing to a monthly data plan, they are providing the data service without tech support. So if something goes wrong, I'm supposedly on my own. If so, you get what you pay for, and I can certainly live with that as a fair trade-off.
By the way, each time I've talked to a Verizon Wireless store, billing, or tech support rep, they've been very helpful, friendly, and for the most part, fairly knowledgeable. If they didn't know the answer, they either looked it up or connected me to someone who did. Believe me, I don't ask the easy questions, and they've really tried hard to answer them all and assist me.
To all this, I cheer with a very loud "Kudos!" to Verizon for providing such value-added services. I'm seriously considering canceling my dial-up ISP, which in a short time will save me more than I paid for the mobile kit. Since I have cable broadband at home, I only kept the dial-up for backup access and for traveling when all else failed.
Verizon's cell ISP connection also works with my VPN. Which lets one do cool and useful things such as wirelessly syncing a PDA to a laptop, with the laptop simultaneously connected wirelessly via Wi-Fi or a cell phone to an office network via a more secure VPN connection to sync the data. (Okay, so there's a short cable between the laptop and cell phone. But the phone is transmitting a wireless data signal.) While it's one extra cable to carry and perhaps not as sexy as Wi-Fi, it's another useful and relatively high-speed tool in my road warrior bag of tricks.
When you're on the road, having more access options is a very good thing. Doubly so when it doesn't cost anything extra per month, especially if it's just needed for backup. After all the 3G hype these past several years, it's nice to see it finally come of age and made available closer to the mainstream.