Web Working from the Road (Part 2): Connecting to the Web via a Wireless Carrier

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For those of you who don’t want to go through the pain and upfront expenses of getting a satellite dish (and pointing the thing every time you reach a new destination), but still need to get online for work or play or whatever (porn?), you’ll want to look into the wireless carriers.

Wireless carriers like AT&T and Sprint provide two options for getting online: tethering and data cards.

Tethering refers to using your actual cell phone, plugging it into your computer, and access the Internet through your phone’s connection, and typically comes with an additional charge to your monthly cell use.

Using a data card, you’re actually paying for a different plan than the one you may already have with that carrier, and you’ll get a seperate device, typically utilizing your computers PCMCIA slot or USB port.

With either of these options, you’ll need a data plan, which is basically an exchange of your hard earned dollars for the ability to access the wireless providers network.

Throughout this post I’ll be focusing on AT&T and Sprint, as we don’t have Verizon programs.*

How Much Will this Cost?

The short answer is around $60 / month. That’s what AT&T charges for it’s data plans that include tethering, and that’s how much all three of the big carriers charge per month for their data plans with a data card.

You’ll also need to buy a data card or cell phone, if you don’t already own one. Our particular data cards cost around $230 each.

Note that iPhone users don’t currently have the ability to tether there phones to their computers, though AT&T has announced plans to allow them to begin to do so. An interesting note here is that AT&T charges $45/mo to Blackberry users for their data plans without tethering, while iPhone plans only cost $20-$25/mo. It’ll be interesting to see if tethering on the iPhone is cheaper than on Blackberry.

How Difficult will this Be?

Setting up my Sprint data card took us less than half an hour the first time. I had to install a small piece of software. Windows users will need to launch the software every time they want to connect and leave it open. Mac users only need to set their data cards up once in System Preferences > Networking, and then a menu icon will allow you to connect at will. After setup, connecting on either a PC or Mac is an extremely painless process.

Tethering, on the other hand, can be a bit more involved. For one thing, your computer will now have a cell phone dangling from it via a USB cord, which could be annoying for notebook users (and really, you should probably have a notebook if you’re living in an RV.) Third party software is also involved as well. We don’t currently tether, so I don’t have much more information on doing so at this time.

What Will the Experience be like Compared to a Cable or DSL Connection?

Sprint and AT&T both claim speeds of up to around 3Mbps. In reality, I’ve seen closer to 1.4Mbps in cities, closer to 150Kbps or less in smaller towns. There’s also the issue that, as easy as it is to reconnect your data card to the Web, it’s not like your home network where you just open up your computer and you’re connected.

On the other hand, data plans via your wireless carrier are superior to satellite and cable/dsl setups in that you can use them while you’re moving, so they’ll work while you’re driving down the highway (well, you shouldn’t actually be the one driving) or sitting in the middle of a city park. I’d like to see data cards being built directly into laptops in the future, unless another technology takes there place (WiMAX anyone?)

* Why didn’t you choose to use Verizon Wireless? Verizon is evil and wants to kill your puppy. No, but seriously, they are an enormously unethical corporation who really doesn’t have their customers best interests in mind.