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The Portable Office: The best way to get online

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For many of us who travel and want to get online from the road, Wi-Fi hotspots alone just don’t cut it. There aren’t enough of them, they aren’t always available where you want them, and they can be a security nightmare. There is a better alternative: cellular data service from the same wireless carriers who connect our cell phones.

The advantage of cellular data service is its ubiquity. Like cellular voice service, it’s based on networks of base stations that are located in most cities and airports and along most major highways in the United States. That means you can get online at near-broadband speeds in most metropolitan areas, and at slow but still usable rates in less-traveled and less-populated places.

Until recently, the biggest problem with cellular data service was that few of the carriers offered good Mac support; Verizon was long the main exception. But that has gradually been changing: all the major carriers now make it much easier for Macs to get online, too.

This means that for most mobile Mac users, a cellular data plan is now the best—if not the least expensive—way to get online from the road. But which carrier’s service should you choose? Here’s how they compare.

The Carriers

AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon each offer speedy, third-generation cellular data networks in the United States (see our cell data glossary). Sprint and Verizon claim downstream rates from 600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps; AT&T, from 700 Kbps to 1.7 Mbps; all three can reach peak speeds of more than 2 Mbps. Going the other way, Verizon and Sprint claim upstream rates of 500 to 800 Kbps; AT&T, from 500 Kbps to 1.2 Mbps.

Those claims aren’t too far wrong. In informal testing, our colleagues at Computerworld found that downloads averaged around 500 to 750 Kbps, peaking around 1.2 to 1.6 Mbps, while uploads were about 230 to 480 Kbps. In my own informal testing with a new Sprint adapter card, I actually hit a peak of 2.4 Mbps for one download.

All three services provide roughly comparable coverage. Of the three, AT&T is lagging furthest behind: It has full service in 275 of the 350 top metropolitan markets, and plans to finish rolling out service in the remaining 75 this year. When you roam beyond the reach of the 3G network, service drops back to whatever last-generation cellular data network that carrier used; as a result, your speed will drop more precipitously on Verizon’s and Sprint’s networks than on AT&T’s.

T-Mobile is lagging behind the other big national carriers: While the company just launched a 3G network in New York City, it has only an intermediate 2.5G network—EDGE—in the United States. (EDGE is the middle-speed network used by the first-generation iPhone.) T-Mobile is also alone among the Big Four in not offering cell-data options for Mac owners; it offers just a single PC Card, with no Mac drivers or software.

The Plans

The cost of 3G service depends on your carrier’s plans and how much bandwidth you want.

AT&T offers one service plan: it’s $60 per month and you’re allowed a maximum of 5GB of combined upstream and downstream data. AT&T says that it may apply a surcharge for users who go over the limit, but it doesn’t say exactly how much that charge might be or whether there’s an upper limit on those surcharges. Customers can cancel instead of paying the overage charges—but that’s an ugly option because of the cancellation fees.

Sprint also has a $60-per-month plan and recently started capping its bandwidth at 5GB for on-network service and 300MB for roaming service. The company says it will contact customers who exceed either threshold in two months out of any three-month period to discuss options; customers who choose to cancel or who don’t respond to inquiries will have their cancellation fee waived.

Sprint also has a limited data plan for $40 per month that allows you 40MB per month of combined upstream and downstream data. If you go beyond that limit, you’ll be charged about $1 per megabyte, with a maximum total charge of $100 per month.

Verizon too offers a $60 plan that’s capped at 5GB per month. The state of New York investigated Verizon over its calling this service “unlimited”; the carrier recently had the investigation dropped in return for clarifying its rules and providing a clearer disclosure (the best you’ll get from any of the three carriers) about how it measures service and how it defines appropriate use of its network.

If you sign up for Verizon’s 5GB plan, you’ll be charged 49 cents for each additional megabyte beyond that 5GB cap. But before those charges start, you’ll be notified via e-mail, text message, and the connection software when you are approaching the limit. (If you already have an older cellular data service contract, your bandwidth may be throttled down to 200 Kbps if you go over your 5GB limit.)

Verizon also offers a limited data plan for about $40 per month. That includes 50MB per month of combined upstream and downstream data. If you go over that limit, you’ll be charged 99 cents per megabyte.

Most of these plans require a one- or two-year commitment. If you don’t want to commit, AT&T and Verizon will charge you $80 or more per month for service, plus the full price of the adapter. Sprint recently dropped that month-to-month option, and the other two could follow suit.

Carrier Monthly Overage Charges Limit on Monthly Bandwidth Notes
AT&T $60 Not explained until you hit the limit 5GB
Sprint $40 $1/MB 40MB Maximum charge: $100/month
Sprint $60 none 5GB Warnings if you exceed limit regularly.
Verizon Wireless $40 $0.99/MB 50MB
Verizon Wireless $60 $0.49/MB 5GB Extensive warnings before you reach the limit

My advice: The $60-per-month plan from any carrier is almost certainly the best. Five gigabytes per month translates to under 200MB a day on average, which isn’t an onerous limit. If you’re not buying movies from the iTunes Store, using peer-to-peer networks, or constantly installing huge software updates, you might never even exceed this daily average. But be careful: At 800 Kbps (Verizon’s reported average downstream speed), you could hit 200MB within 30 minutes of daily continuous downloading.

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