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Until recently, if you wanted to get online while on the road, you had two main options: jack in to your hotel’s in-house network or find a Wi-Fi hotspot. But a third option is slowly gaining traction: 3G (third-generation) cellular data networks. With a single account and a single piece of hardware, you can theoretically get high-speed Net access from almost anywhere you can use your cell phone.

Mac users have so far been spectators in the 3G revolution. Until recently, 3G hardware vendors and network providers have only supported Windows. Fortunately, just as cellular data networks have become nearly ubiquitous, options for connecting to them with a Mac have finally started to emerge.

Right now, three types of 3G networks are in use in the United States. Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless both use a technology called EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized), while Cingular Wireless has deployed two related technologies called UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) and HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access). T-Mobile’s offerings are still confined to last-generation EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) technology, which runs much more slowly.

Regardless of the specific technology, 3G networks typically support download speeds of 150 Kbps to 700 Kbps; for uploads, you’ll get 150 Kbps max. (Vendors will claim much higher theoretical speeds, but you won’t get them in real-world use.) Those speeds will probably increase in the next 12 to 18 months.

In the cards

So how’s a Mac user to tap into 3G? The first option is to get a plug-in 3G modem for your laptop and an account that will let it connect to the Internet.

Right now, Verizon is the only 3G carrier that fully supports the Mac. An account will cost you about $60 a month. If you commit for a long period of time, that fee includes a PC Card modem you can plug into your PowerBook; otherwise, you will pay extra for the modem. It’s possible to set up a PC Card account with Sprint and Cingular. But Sprint doesn’t support the Mac at all, and Cingular only does so unofficially (meaning you can get it to work but the company can’t help you).

Setting up the card and account with Verizon is dead easy. In my testing, it took one download, a single restart (a necessary evil for some network-level software), and zero data entry to get the card working on the network. Verizon is currently supplying customers with one of two 3G modems: the Kyocera KPC650 or the Audiovox PC5740. Both of these are PC Cards, which owners of PowerBooks can use. So what if you don’t have a PowerBook? The MacBook Pro is equipped with the new (and superspeedy) ExpressCard/34 slots—owners of those newer laptops can’t use PC Cards. Cell phone companies have been cagey about when they’ll make ExpressCard 3G modems available. Several vendors demonstrated prototypes of ExpressCard/34 3G modems this past spring at a cellular industry trade show; the first 3G ExpressCard/34 hardware should be available by the time you read this, with Mac drivers available a few months later. Sprint has informal, unannounced plans to offer a USB EV-DO modem, which should also have OS X drivers, as early as this fall.

Tethered phones

If you can’t use a PC Card, or if you want to use a company other than Verizon, your alternative is to connect your laptop to a 3G-ready phone via USB or Bluetooth and get a “tethered phone” data plan from your cellular provider. Such plans typically cost slightly less than the plans for PC Cards, because they don’t include those cards. And setting up a tethered phone connection is usually a trivial task, similar to setting up a dial-up phone connection.

The hardest part is finding a Mac-compatible 3G-ready phone. Tracking down such a phone on a service provider’s Web site is challenging, so your best plan is to directly contact your carrier of choice and ask.

Unfortunately, none of these carriers officially supports Mac OS X when it comes to using their phones as 3G modems. Even worse, while OS X supports many 3G phones via Bluetooth (using its dial-up networking profile) and via USB, it can be hard to determine whether it supports yours.

Third-party software can help out—not only with connecting your Mac via a 3G phone, but with using a PC Card modem that doesn’t have official OS X support. Smith Micro’s QuickLink Mobile supports dozens of phones and many PC Cards in all the major cellular-data technologies. QuickLink Mobile is sold for specific phones or PC Cards and for specific carriers. It costs $30 for phones that work with Bluetooth, $40 for PC Card support, and $50 for phones that require a USB cable. The software is available as a download only, with the cable sent separately if needed. There’s no evaluation version.

Nova Media’s launch2net also supports phones and PC Cards, but it specializes in EDGE, UMTS, and HSDPA. It’s about $100 to download; a time-limited evaluation version is available.

The best strategy for establishing a tethered connection is to head down to your local cell phone store. Your first task is to see whether there’s OS X support for the phone you want. If not, your second task is to download the software from Smith Micro or Nova Media and hit the store again to make sure it works with your Mac and your phone.

Do your research

Want to know more about 3G? While its operators may veer into overenthusiasm at times, is the single best resource for Mac (and Windows) users trying to figure out how to use the latest cards, networks, and software from U.S. carriers. The site offers free advice and hacks. The discussion forums are stocked with knowledgeable users, making it the best place to ask a cell data question—or find an answer by searching archives.

[ Glenn Fleishman writes daily about Wi-Fi, broadband, and cell wireless data at Wi-Fi Networking News.]

Verizon Wireless’s VZAccess Manager gives you a slick Mac OS X interface to monitor your 3G connection.
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