Wherever You Go There You Are - All Connected and Everything...
I want you and me and everyone to be able to access the Internet anywhere and be able to share it. In a beautiful future world, our energy will be 100% from renewable resources, everyone will just get along, Reality -TV will be long gone, there'll be Spandex jackets (one for every one) and there will be WiFi (or its beautiful, green, multicultural equivalent) on every sqare inch of this big blue marble.
At this point, sadly, none of these is true (except for satellite Internet which is slow and VERY expensive). And since our personal and business lives seem to rely more and more on information and communications, what's a modern now-a-gogo Travelling Techno Geek supposed to do? Here are some ways of getting connected and sharing that connection, in order of cost.
Sharing What You've Got
If you travel for business a lot, you might find good reason to share the Internet you've already got in your hotel room, conference facility, etc. Many places now provide it for free & some still charge $10-ish a day for it. Either way, if it's a jack on a wall, you're pretty much tethered to it and you can't share it with multiple users. You might have The Kids with you in the hotel and they've got NetBooks (Dell, HP) and you've got a Laptop and a SIP phone to connect to the office. Maybe you have 4 colleagues at a trade show and you only get one Internet connection at your booth. You can whip out a small ethernet switch to connect you all - and watch the Keyboard Cops movie that ensues as everyone goes tripping (man)... OR you can share the Internet wirelessly.
Any basic WiFi router will do the trick as long as you're not doing anything fancy. Dlink packages one called the DWL-G730AP for travellers. At $70 list, it comes in a nice case so things don't get lost. At less than 4 x 3 x 1 inches it can fit in your pocket. You just connect it to the ethernet jack you're given and it makes that connection wireless via 802.11g within a ~ 200' radius.
But Wait - There's More!
This unit has 3 modes. In Router mode, it connects to a public Internet connection and provides NAT (Network Address Translation) and DHCP (machine addressing). In Access Point mode, it connects to a private Internet connection (e.g. 192.168.0.x) that is already NATted. As a convenience, it can also be used as a Wireless Client - got an old laptop or video game or other ethernet item that's not wireless? Plug the G730P into it and now it is. I set up The World's Greatest Consumer (R) with one of these and, though he hasn't used it much, it did work for him and he liked the convenience of it
For just a little less you can get the little bigger Trendnet TEW-434APB . It doesn't have the carrying case but it has 2 additional features. First, if you already have WiFi at your location but it doesn't go far enough, you can put this unit near the end of the existing WiFi's range and, in REPEATER Mode, extend that range.
Second: if you use it in AP Client mode as mentioned before, you can do the exact inverse of what I've just described - you can take a single, provided, WiFi connection, and connect more than one wired laptop to this single feed (most AP clients only handle one machine at a time - see my table in the PS below). I have installed 2 of these at the UCAN.ORG offices - each feeds their WiFi network to both a PC and a VoIP "SIP" phone.
WiFi When Wandering the World
OK. so as I originally stated, we don't have a Utopian data world yet. WiFi is not available everywhere, though some people are working on it with technology like WiMAX and LTE. Today, the most ubiquitous Internet access we have that's not made for the military or rich people is that which the cellular networks provide. (Read about CDMA vs GSM) For CDMA networks like Verizon, Sprint, and Cricket it's called EVDO (and RevA is the current version). For TDMA/GSM networks like AT&T and T-Mobile it's called W-CDMA. Since this kind of Internet access is available pretty much any place there's cellular coverage (though the technology used in rural areas can be much slower than the fastest available today), you can get Internet in a lot more places. And, you have to pay for it; see my prior post, Weathing Tethering, for data plan costs from the Big 4 and a definition of TETHERING.
So, now we have to get this cellular-provided Internet access into your laptop or other device. There's "tethering" where your SmartPhone uses its guts to provide your laptop with Internet. It's the least convenient method but for occasional users it means having just one device and one data plan. Or, you can buy an "Air Card", a USB or ExpressCard device that's essentially a cellphone that you can't talk on. It connects to your carrier and gives your laptop Internet access. That's ALL it does. Some laptops come with these radios, aka WLAN adaptors, factory-installed (just like WiFi). Any of these 3 methods will get you Internet in your car, in your hotel, at your friend's house, in your mobile home, and maybe even camping. Read paragraph 5 of this reply I posted about how Mrs. Telecom and I made a Skype call from the middle of Grand Teton National Park using my Verizon Omnia phone tethered to my laptop.
BTW, here's an interesting comparison of the Big 4s' networks and pricing (from 2006)
Sharing Your Wireless
So now we're in the same position as we were in Paragraph 3. How do you share this valuable resource. Here are a couple of fairly new products that the traveller and especially the business traveller will appreciate. You're going to create your own WiFI hotspot!
You're with your sales team on a retreat in the mountains, trying to be one with nature AND the number one sales team. You want all 5 of you to have Internet access so you can connect to the office LAN using VPN software, get email, do web research, even make calls on the office VoIP phone system. You could pay for each of you to have an Air Card (let's say $50 each) and a data plan (let's say $60/mo/each). That's a lit of money if you all don't use this regularly.
Or you could buy a Cradlepoint CTR-350 Wireless Router (typ $100). This box, toughly the size of a pack of smokes, tethers to you Smartphone, getting Internet from it. It then repeats this Internet signal as WiFi-G for everyon within range to use. It also has an ethernet port in case you want to use it wirelessly. Can be used in an office network as a temporarily Internet backup should your main Internet connection fail. Works with most brands of phones on all carriers. There's also the PHS-300 which is like the CTR-350 but is WiFi only.
The CTR-500 has the additional feature of an optional external WiFi antenna. When you're at the summer cabin, you can pick up WiFi (assuming a cell tower is within range) then repeat it as WiFi all the way down to the boat dock. It also hasan Express Card slot so you can use it with an Air Card instead of a tethered cell phone. In the office, this goes from being a TEMPORARY Internet backup to a permanent one. Here's a product comparison guide from CradlePoint.
All In One and One For All
The hottest thing on the market is the MiFi by San Diego - based Novatel Wireless. The MiFi2200, provided for review by Franco of Imagineering Wireless, looks like a piece of a black Hershey bar and is a piece of cake to use. Though comes with a power adaptor, it's got a battery inside and can run for over 4 hours on it. It's cool. It just sits there. Once you configure it, all you'll ever do again is turn it on and off. Connected to your EVDO data account, it just repeats that Internet over WiFi-G for you and up to 4 others around you. If you aren't in a sharing mood, you can connect your laptop to it via its included USB cable and, essentially, tether to it. At this moment, Verizon sells the 2200 for $50 after rebates and contracts. The MiFi 2372 will be sold for use on AT&T and T-Mobile networks. As of November 2009, Zyxel is competing with a similar product that does WiFi draft-N speeds, as well.
Crossing Over: The John Edward "Medium" for Multiple Networks
It's sad that they all don't use one method of sending their signals but in our less- than-beautiful REAL world Reality TV still exists and you can't buy one phone or piece of hardware for competing networks. "Or can you? Mwahahah..." Let's say you already have a plan with Verizon, so you buy a Cradlepoint and tether your SmartPhone to it (or use a MiFi with a second account). Now you're repeating this Internet signal over WiFi, right? Many Smartphones can use WiFi for Internet access. So, your husband, that GEEK, has an iPhone with AT&T. He can pick up the WiFi from your repeater and surf the web on his phone while you use your laptop.
A Third Party Option
Taproot Systems of North Carolina offers software that lets your Smartphone become a "Walking HotSpot". In essence, if you install their $30 software on one of the supported phones the phone essentially becomes a MiFi, repeating the cellular Internet as 802.11g WiFi. The web site says "Verizon Wireless Not Supported". I'm not surprised since Verizon has always had a reputation of being what I can only say APPEARS as anti-competitive. A couple years back, when I asked why they would not allow tethering on my old VX-6700 phone, they said it was because they didn't want to offer any features they didn't feel were going to cause their subscribers any problems. I read their "we're looking out for your cellfare" (I can look out for myself, thanks) as "we're looking out for alternatives to our proprietary revenue sources".
The Plus And Minuses: A Summary
Depending on your needs, you can
- Pay for one data account (typically $60-ish) that covers your SmartPhone and occasionally provides shared internet via a Cradlepoint or other fine brand of router. You cannot use the phone, the phone's browser/mail, or the tethered router, at the same time on CDMA networks.
- Pay for one data account that covers your SmartPhone ($30-ish) and another data account (typically $60-ish) that provides simultaneous (and less hassle) shared (or private) Internet. For this approach there are essentially 2 options:
- Use an ExpressCard or USB "Air Card" with a Cradlepoint box. The same card can be used, when sharing isn't necessary, by your laptop privately
- Use a Mifi which is designed to share, but can also connect to the USB port of your laptop for private use
And as a parting thought, if you're downsizing at home (kids are gone, YOU'RE gone half the time, you've dropped the landline) you should consider dropping the DSL or cable modem too. At $25 to $50 a month, you could use that money to pay for a data plan with your carrier. Add one of the solutions mentioned herein, and you've got WiFi, 24/7 around the house. It's not nearly as fast as the wired solutions but at ~1300kb/s down by ~500kb/s up it's more than enough speed for typical email and web surfing. Don't expect to download movies or play online games. And watch your account (you can do this online) because some plans have quotas (typically 5GB) that, once exceeded, can cost you a bundle in overage charges. But if you can work with the plan limitations and reduced speed, you can take this same Internet with you in the car, to the beach, to Grand Teton National Park....
ADDENDUM: 11/10/09 - Look for information on the rumored "vPhone" Android-based phone for Verizon customers which is said to include a WiFi router in it. That's like having a phone with a built-in MiFi! This article from PhoneScoop.com says it will also have a web cam facing you (as well as the usual 5MP camera facing out the back) so that you and a friend can video-chat via Skype, etc. What a beautiful world this will be...what a glorious time to be me ;^)
PS: As Promised - A Chart Of WiFi Bridges
Here's a list from Spring 2009 of non-cellular products that can be used as wireless clients (aka WiFi Bridges) that can connect an ethernet-enabled item, or an entire network, to a WiFi Access Point:
Model Sell Bands >1 MAC? Info
Trendnet TEW-434APB $55 G Yes http://trendnet.com/products/proddetail.asp?prod=120_TEW-434APB&cat=124
SMC SMCWEB-N $90 GN Yes http://www.smc.com/index.cfm?event=viewProduct&localeCode=EN_USA&cid=5&scid=117&pid=1635
Dlink DGL-3420 $85 GA No http://games.dlink.com/products/?pid=383&#DGL-3420
Dlink DWL-G730AP $55 G No http://dlink.com/products/?pid=346
Dlink DAP-1555 $175~ GAN No http://dlink.com/products/?pid=570
DLink DAP-1522 $108 G N No http://dlink.com/products/?pid=663
LinkSys WBP54G $40 G No http://www.cisco.com/en/US/products/ps10046/index.html
LinkSys WET54G $93 G thinkso http://www.linksysbycisco.com/US/en/products/WET54G
LinkSys WET610n $93 GAN ? http://www.linksysbycisco.com/US/en/products/WET610N
LinkSys WGA600n $93 GAN ? http://www.linksysbycisco.com/US/en/products/WGA600N
Cisco WET200 $120 G 256 http://www.cisco.com/en/US/products/ps10053/index.html
3COM 3CRWE675075 $180~ GAN 16 http://www.3com.com/products/en_US/detail.jsp?tab=features&sku=3CRWE675075&pathtype=support
Engenius ECB-3220 $75~ G Yes http://www.engeniustech.com/datacom/products/details.aspx?id=170
Airlink AP431w/421W $25~ G ? http://www.airlink101.com/products/wireless.php