Andrew Pollack's Blog

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The scoop on cellular broadband

By Andrew Pollack on 11/16/2005 at 01:09 PM EST

I don't like being off the net. Its no shock to anyone who knows me. It means I can't just follow whatever crazy idea I have at the moment to create, adjust, fix, or check on something that's been simmering in the back of my mind. As such, I've been using cellular modems since they've been available, wifi hotspots, dsl, cable, and just about every other way to connect you can think of. Now Verizon and Sprint both offer broadband wireless. I thought I'd check it out and give you guys the scoop. It took a bit of work to get to the bottom of it. I haven't looked at Sprint's pricing or rules because Sprint's primary coverage ends just a few miles from my house if I go north. Verizon does reasonably well up here.

For years now I've been using their "Nationwide" (1xRTT) network for cellular internet connection. Its pretty good. Speed is roughly comparable to twice dialup modem speed but with somewhat higher latency. Its fine for Notes replication, not good for voice over IP or real time games. Remote controlling a PC with software like VNC will feel sluggish while something like Terminal Service which uses a local screen and sends commands back and forth is more comfortable. Still, the speed itself isn't very fast so looking at images or transferring files is slow. Its pretty much like a dial up connection. The big advantage is that its always available.

Well, the new broadband service is supposed to put the stop to that speed problem. The service has several names, Broadband, or 3G work, but EVDO seems to be the preferred name. EVDO claims speeds up to 2mbs -- reports and reviews put real use closer to 500kbps which is about the same as a DSL connection. Verizon charges $59.95 per month for unlimited use of the broadband network when you're in a city where they've rolled it out and on the 1xRTT network when you're not. If you don't have a Verizon cell phone its twenty dollars more.

So, if you live in one of their coverage areas, you can get DSL speeds for your laptop citywide and while mobile for sixty bucks a month. Its not quite as good as DSL or Cable if you're stationary, but if you move around a lot and need a quick connection from nearly anywhere its a nice way to go.

Here's where it starts to get interesting. There's one company I came across who's selling powered antennas, a more powerful pcmcia card, and a wireless router kit. Yes, a wifi hotspot kit powered by the cellular card. You plug the pcmcia card into this brick, and it acts just like any 802.11g wifi router --sharing your cellular broadband connection with any computers in the area. I'm not linking to them yet because I'm not sure about their reputation yet - the website is a crazy mish-mash full of exciting things and almost no organization or navigability. They appear to be a reseller of both Verizon and Sprint services.

One final note: Verizon also has V Cast -- but be careful. V Cast uses their broadband connection but if you have a phone with V Cast you cannot (under contract, and by Verizon's configuration) use it as a cellular modem. To get broadband from them you have to buy broadband. I say "under contract" because there are several sites that detail how to get the USB cable for Motorola's E815 phone -- which is by all accounts a fantastic phone -- and use it as a cellular modem and even modify the Bluetooth configuration to enable the features that Verizon locks out. You see, cell phone vendors lock down Bluetooth to stop if from doing file sharing and applications because they want you to use their own pay services. Fortunately, there are lots of very smart hackers out there who publish the methods for circumventing this.

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