Thursday, February 19, 2009

AT&T HSUPA Aircards Have the Edge Over EDGE

AT&T, like the other major wireless carriers, has been on a determined program to upgrade its cellular data capabilities. Broadband is the service in demand for everything from Web browsing to streaming mobile video. Wireless is the broadband service in demand. Everyone wants to be connected to the Internet 24/7 wherever they happen to be. AT&T is only too happy to scratch that itch.

If you've been dutifully plodding along with your wireline broadband connection at work and/or home and get by with a basic cell phone for staying in touch verbally, then you may have missed the latest initiatives in the mobile broadband revolution. Even if you venture out with your trusty laptop to enjoy a hot cup of joe and relax with your favorite websites at a nearby WiFi hotspot, you may not be getting all the mobility you could have.

WiFi hotspots have been the rage for years, with free WiFi now expected in restaurants and hotels. What's really helped establish this technology is standardized interfaces built into nearly every laptop, notebook and netbook computer. Many smartphones are also WiFi enabled. WiFi has given everyone the idea that the Internet needn't be a tether to your desk. But WiFi has some real limitations.

This is what the much heralded WiMAX is supposed to address. Think of WiMAX as a WiFi hotspot that covers a town. Sounds pretty good, right? But WiMAX has been in development for years and is only now starting its years and years of nation-wide buildout.

In the meantime, the established mobile communications providers - the cell phone carriers - have been thinking that they've already established their turf and have the transmitting towers in place to provide near-universal wireless coverage. The one thing they've been lacking is a really fast Internet service to go along with their mobile telephone service.

This is the system that AT&T has been building out. It's been done in stages with connectivity similar to a dial-up ISP being launched first. Next came true broadband with a service called EDGE or Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution. EDGE gives you bandwidth similar to entry level DSL services at around 384 Kbps. That's not bad for email or general Web surfing, but most users are now spoiled with higher speeds and bandwidth-intensive applications like streaming video.

To gain more bandwidth, AT&T has been upgrading to a faster technology called HSPA or High Speed Packet Access. HSPA comes in two flavors. HSDPA is High Speed Downlink Packet Access. It is focused on a large download bandwidth of of up to 3.6 Mbps with a relatively small upload bandwidth. HSUPA offers a true broadband upload channel with download speeds up to 2 Mbps. I say "up to" because the performance you experience will vary with signal strength and how many other users are trying to access the network at the same time you are connected.

How do you get connected to the AT&T 3G BroadbandConnect and Nationwide EDGE networks? You'll need a wireless modem, such as the Option Quicksilver USB Modem, that plugs into a USB connector on your mobile computer. This particular aircard, as wireless modems are called, works with both types of networks. The Nationwide EDGE network is available in 13,000 cities. The faster 3G BroadbandConnect network based on HSPA (including HSUPA and HSDPA technologies) is now available in 260 U.S. metro areas.

The Quicksilver modem works with both PCs and Macs and is available free with your Wireless Data Plan order. The plan runs $60 a month and includes 5 GB of data per month. That's way more than most people will use on a mobile computer.

Sierra Wireless also offers a USB modem called the Sierra Wireless Mercury USB Modem for AT&T. It is also available free of charge with a data plan service order. The Sierra Wireless modem includes a built-in GPS receiver that can be used with location based services and a microSD slot for expandable memory.

If you prefer an aircard that plugs into a PCMCIA slot on your laptop, there are several to choose from. A free one is the Option GT Ultra PCMCIA PC/Mac Card which has a retractable butterfly antenna. Others available for a small cost include the Sierra Wireless AC881 PC/Mac PCMCIA Card, and the Option GT Ultra ExpressCard PC/Mac Card that fits into the ExpressCard/34 (mm) slots on some computers. Pick the card and interface that works best with your computers.

What are the hottest cell phone deals available right now, including free cell phones? Use the Cell Phone Plan Finder to check out the top phones and associated wireless service plans.

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