By Stephen H. Wildstrom Q: Reader Alan Neff writes: We're full-time RV (recreational vehicle) folks who need a Wi-Fi connection wherever possible, but a lot of campgrounds and other facilities have limited or no Wi-Fi hookups.We did meet some folks who have a Verizon (VZN) broadband Aircard, which costs about $250 and comes with a $100 rebate if you sign on for two years. The monthly charge is $79.99 -- a fair amount for retirees. Any thoughts on just how good this service is concerning coverage, reliability, or vulnerability to hackers? Are there there better ones out there?
A: For this sort of wide-area coverage in the U.S., you basically have two choices, Verizon Wireless or Cingular.
Verizon's network sells three levels of data service, though the slowest is not really practical. The fastest -- technically known as 1X EVDO but wisely branded BroadbandAccess -- has download speeds upward of 300 kilobits per second (in all cases, I'm using the speeds you can expect in areas of decent coverage, not the ridiculously optimistic number advertised by the carriers). Verizon offers it in 30 metropolitan areas, with service in most major cities expected by yearend.
GSM TECHNOLOGY. Where EVDO isn't available, the card will automatically fall back to 1X RTT service, which Verizon calls NationalAccess. That service gives you speeds of maybe 50 kilobits, equivalent to a decent dial-up connection. In many rural areas, neither one of these data services exists, so you would have to make do with the voice network's data service. The maximum speed is 14.4 kilobits and, as you've already learned, not very usable. (Sprint -- FON
-- is building a national EVDO network and expects to begin offering service this summer.)
Also in transition, Cingular's data network has different levels of service available in different locations. Cingular uses an alternative technology, called GSM, and speeds are more variable, depending on the configuration of the network in any locality. Available in six test markets, the fastest service, called UMTS, downloads at speeds of up to about 250 kilobits.
HSDPA (don't blame me for the alphabet soup of wireless nomenclature), a fast version comparable to EVDO, should make its debut around yearend. A medium-speed service called EDGE provides up to about 200 kilobits. You can find it on the Cingular network, although coverage is somewhat spotty.
AVAILABILITY RULES. Where no EDGE coverage exists, you'll have to settle for GPRS (general packet radio service) at maybe 30 kilobits. I've had to make do with GPRS speeds in a lot of places, including my house, where Cingular's coverage map says EDGE is available. Fortunately, the devices switch automatically to the fastest service available, and you aren't required to remember the names. In some rural areas with voice-only service, you may have to just do without.
Because the pricing of these services are similar, I would base my choice on availability in the places you plan to spend the most time. This will require some careful study of coverage maps.
These services will grow more convenient as laptops get built-in modems to connect with wireless-phone networks. Sony (SNE) has just introduced the first in the U.S. (see BW Online, 6/20/05, "Notebooks Get Even More Mobile") -- it runs on Cingular. By yearend, all major laptop makers will bring out notebooks with integrated wide-area wireless. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. You can contact him at email@example.com