A few weeks back, I was in Tucson International Airport waiting to board a flight, and I decided to get some work done. I popped a wireless card into the slot on the side of my laptop and logged on to the Internet via Verizon (VZ) Communications' National-Access plan. In seconds, without having to connect a cable from my computer to a phone line, I was clearing e-mails and cruising the Net at speeds faster than the dial-up connection in millions of homes.
NationalAccess is one of a growing selection of services that cellular carriers are dangling in front of travelers who want full-blown Internet access on the laptop of their choice. There are actually two technologies that allow you to have this. The most famous is Wi-Fi, which hotels, airports, and coffee shops are using to set up "hot spots" offering high-speed connections. The second category of services, which includes NationalAccess, lets you tap into the Net anywhere through cellular phone networks. Many major wireless carriers now offer both options, making it easy for road warriors to mix and match services until they come up with their ideal, always-on Net connection.
Over the past few weeks, I have tested both cellular and Wi-Fi options in various locales. When it comes to speed, the latter wins hands down. At the Borders (BGP) bookstore near my home in Los Angeles, I was barreling around the Net, courtesy of T-Mobile's Wi-Fi service, at 1,000 kilobits per second -- three times as fast as my connection at work and nearly 20 times as fast as dial-up. That makes all the difference when you're dealing with large, data-rich files, such as the vacation pictures I had stored on an online photo site.
But Wi-Fi has limits. Hot spots are still concentrated in large cities, and the quality of service is erratic. For instance, just when I craved Wi-Fi the most -- in the Tucson airport -- there was no hot spot. And on a trip to San Diego, it was also a pain finding one. Starbucks did the trick, but I had to find a parking space and feed the meter. The services from Sprint (FON) and Verizon, in contrast, let you on the Web from any place that's covered by their cell-phone networks.
The problem with current cellular services is simply speed. Many use a technology called GPRS, which is too slow to justify its $30-to-$80 monthly fee. Plans based on Qualcomm's CDMA technology (at present, just Sprint and Verizon) are faster: I sometimes clocked 70 kilobits per second, better than dial-up connections. While that's fine for e-mail, it's too slow to move large files. New, much faster cellular services are coming, including Verizon's BroadbandAccess (page 28) and an enhanced form of GPRS. For now, you'll have to give up some speed if you want ubiquitous coverage.
For Verizon subscriber Richard Rothman, the ability to log on anywhere has transformed his real estate company, HomeBuyer Agents. As soon as new houses come on the market, Rothman and his co-workers can view the listings on the Web and e-mail them to prospective buyers -- without having to rush back to their office in San Diego.
My advice: If you need access to the Web on the road often and you don't want to endure the hot-spot hunt, cellular is the way to go. But it's worth equipping yourself for Wi-Fi, too. Fortunately, most of the Wi-Fi carriers offer day passes. To gain access to the widest swath of hot spots, consider signing up for two or three Wi-Fi plans, and then just pay the daily rate as you go. Meanwhile, keep an eye on technical developments: Sprint has just started offering software that switches from Wi-Fi to cellular -- though in some cases you may have to pop in a card. So hit the road, and get down to work -- or even just play. By Arlene Weintraub