Why go mobile?

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Mobile broadband plans
There are three broad options for on-the-road connectivity: Wi-Fi hot spots; wireless broadband from the likes of Unwired and iBurst (and their resellers); and mobile services such as GPRS and 3G.

Wi-Fi hotspots can offer ADSL and faster speeds, but tend to only be available in very specific locations like McDonalds restaurants or airports. Most notebooks and some handhelds and smart phones have wireless LAN capabilities built in, and can consequently use Wi-Fi hotspots without any extra hardware. You will need an account with a hotspot provider – although often you can sign up on the spot with a credit card.

The biggest provider of hotspots in Australia is Telstra’s Wireless Hotspot service, which has hotspots in McDonalds, Starbucks, Qantas Club lounges and various hotels and outdoor areas across Australia (though most are concentrated in the CBDs of Melbourne and Sydney). It costs 20c per minute to use the Telstra hotspots, with a possible connection fee of 25c, depending on your plan.

Wireless broadband offers near-ADSL speeds at roughly ADSL prices. At the moment you will need to purchase a wireless broadband modem from your provider, since no devices (yet) have independent access capabilities built in. In the future, as service providers move to WiMAX (a.k.a. IEEE802.16), an open standard for long range wireless broadband, we’re likely to see access capabilities built right into notebooks and even handhelds and smart phones.

Modems can be either external boxes or PC Cards and wireless broadband is accessible wherever your service providers have coverage – which for the moment mostly means heavily populated areas of major cities. Wireless broadband is cheaper and usually faster than mobile network services and you should be able to get 10GB+ of downloads per month at 512 kilobits per second for roughly $80-$90.

For the best coverage, however, you can’t beat 3G. Now you can get 3G Internet access at up to a theoretical 1.5Mb/s just about anywhere you can get a mobile phone signal. Even where you can’t get those speeds, you can usually drop back to the older GPRS data services, which offer roughly dial-up modem speeds.

In addition to near-blanket coverage, you can get global roaming on most 3G and GPRS accounts, providing Internet access through your mobile even when overseas. Remember that 3G speeds can be deceptive – you never get anywhere near the theoretical maximum – but they do compare fairly well to low-end ADSL.

A 3G-capable smart phone or handheld will be able to get 3G Internet access natively, while notebook computers can get Internet access over 3G with the addition of a PC Card or USB-based modem. Internet access over 3G tends to be a little more expensive than wireless broadband, especially for high-volume users. Telstra BigPond, for example, charges $85 for 1GB of monthly data at 256 kilobits. That said, prices for 3G data are dropping rapidly, with new cutthroat deals appearing on an almost monthly basis.

So which to get? If you only casually need Internet access for short periods of time, and are happy to sit in a McDonalds or Starbucks to get it, then hotspots are a pretty good deal. If you need always-on Internet access, but mainly use it for emails, the occasional VoIP call, instant messaging and casual Web browsing, 3G or GPRS may be the way to go. If you have heavy data needs – remote desktop connections, VPNs and video conferencing fall into this category – then a wireless broadband service is for you.

Companies that are serious about mobility often blend these services, using the cheaper wireless broadband or hotspots where they’re available and 3G or GPRS where they’re not.
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