Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I'm Not Paying For That Aircard

Office wireline business Internet connections offer fast and reliable broadband service... as long as you stay in one place. For mobile operation you need to hunt down WiFi hotspots or get a wide area wireless service, such as cellular broadband. But very few laptop and notebook computers have the communications interface for cellular broadband built-in.

What you need is a carrier specific interface called an aircard. Sounds expensive, right? Well, they can be but not if you know where to look. What you want is the best free aircard you can get that will work with your particular computer. Fortunately, there are lots of choices available.

An aircard, sometimes called a wireless modem, is not all that different from a plug-in WiFi access card. A few years ago, laptop computers came with built-in telephone modems as their communications solution. If you wanted to connect with a WiFi router or wireless access device, you needed to buy a special card. Most often these plugged into the PCMCIA port on the side of the computer.

Nowadays, nearly all portable computers come with WiFi capability built-in and only some still offer telephone modems. But WiFi is only good within a few hundred foot radius of the connection point. If you want to travel around town, cross country or have broadband service available in a client's place of business, you need a wider ranging wireless Internet service. The best option right now is usually cellular broadband.

Cellular broadband is exactly what it sounds like. Every cell tower transmits both voice and data channels. The voice channels are used to carry cellular telephone calls. The data channels carry broadband Internet service to cell phones and other devices that can access them. A cell phone doesn't need an aircard since the data access circuitry is built-in. All it needs is a data service plan in addition to the usual voice service plan.

A notebook computer needs both the aircard interface and the data service plan for the carrier you want to use. That's another difference between WiFi and cellular broadband. WiFi is more standardized and compatible. Cellular systems generally fall into two distinct technologies. GSM is the worldwide standard and the one used by AT&T and T-Mobile. CDMA is popular in the United States and is used by Sprint-Nextel, Verizon and Alltel.

GSM standards include the 2.5G standard called EDGE and the 3G standard called HSPA. There's also a fallback to an earlier standard called GPRS. CDMA carriers support EV-DO as the 2.5G standard and EV-DO Rev A for 3G. Sprint and Clearwire are starting to deploy a 4G standard called WiMAX, but it is only available in a few places right now. Verizon and AT&T have stated they'll both be using another 4G standard called LTE, with build-outs just starting later this year.

If you want cellular broadband service right now, it's available with speeds that rival DSL, T1 lines, and Cable broadband service in most medium and larger cities. Farther out, you may have to settle for the slower 2.5G services or even dial-up level performance in some rural areas. If you can get solid cell phone service, you can probably get at least some wireless Internet connectivity. It's best to check the coverage maps for the carrier you are interested in to get a better idea of what speeds you can expect.

The other decision you need to make is how to connect the aircard to your computer. Some PCMCIA cards are still available. Newer interfaces include ExpressCard/34 and USB. Nearly all computers now have USB connectors, so that is the most universal interface.

So, where can you get a free aircard that works with your computer? Right now, there are just under a dozen different models available for the major carries. They're all the same price... free... so your decision will be based on size, connector, carrier of choice, Mac or Apple compatibility, and other features that include things like built-in memory card slots. Check the selection of free aircards now. Be sure to click on the features of each card you are interested in to get a summary of the specs. You can also compare multiple aircards side by side. When you find the one you want, click on the order button for more details on the aircard and data service plan. It's that easy to get mobile Internet access for your business or personal needs.

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