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Over the past year, a new option for getting online wirelessly—third-generation (3G) cellular data networks—has become increasingly practical for Mac users. In 2007, expect more hardware options, better network coverage, and (unfortunately) some confusion as new 3G network standards come on line.

3G in 2007

With an account from a cell phone carrier and the right plug-in card, 3G cellular networks let you get online from pretty much anywhere you can get a cell signal and provide pretty respectable speeds. You no longer have to hunt around for an open Wi-Fi network.

The big three U.S. cellular operators—Cingular, Sprint Nextel, and Verizon Wireless—all offer 3G service now; fourth-place T-Mobile is just beginning to deploy its 3G service. Verizon and Sprint use a 3G technology called EVDO. Cingular and T-Mobile (when it finishes its network rollout) use UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) and HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access). (HSDPA is faster than, and is replacing, UMTS.)

EVDO and HSDPA networks currently offer decent download speeds (400 to 700 Kbps) but upload rates are abysmal: 50 to 100 Kbps is realistic. Upcoming revisions to both standards should boost speeds tremendously in 2007.

No matter which kind of 3G network you use, you’ll need compatible hardware, either a plug-in card for your laptop or a smart phone that can be used as a modem. Until recently, Mac support for that hardware has been skimpy. Of the major carriers, only Verizon Wireless offered explicit Mac support for its PC Cards; Cingular and Sprint Nextel offer no formal help. But that may be changing. ExpressCard modems (which fit in the new slot on the MacBook Pro and on other high-end laptops) have started to show up; USB modems that can work with any Mac or other computer are on the way.

Whichever carrier you choose, 3G service tends to be expensive. Cards cost $100 to $300, and service plans cost $60 to $80 a month. Smart phones, which can be used as cell modems with some carriers, cost $200 or more with plans costing $40 to $80 per month to use it in this fashion. Prices for all plans vary based on the term of your commitment, with the lowest prices typically requiring a two-year commitment and a voice subscription.

Buying advice

If you’re not desperate for 3G access, waiting until spring 2007 should provide you with many more options for your Mac. If you need service now, use Verizon Wireless with a PowerBook, and consider buying a smart phone with a carrier plan that allows its use as a 3G cell modem for other Mac models.

[ Glenn Fleishman writes about Wi-Fi, broadband, and cellular data at www.wifinetnews.com.]

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