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Connecting to the Internet

How to get online when traveling
 

 

If only access to the internet was as clearly signposted as this would suggest!

This article helps you evaluate your different access alternatives so that you can decide how best to access the internet when you're away from your main connection.

 

 

The good news is that you have many different ways to reach the internet when you're away from your regular internet connection.

The bad news is the same - you have a confusing variety of choices.  In this series, we look at the issues surrounding each option, so that you can better understand the choices open to you and better select that suited for your needs.

Considerations

There are several factors to consider when evaluating different internet connection methods.

Your Needs

What do you need internet connectivity for?  Is it to remain linked into your office network?  Or is it to stay in the email loop?  Do you need full access to all internet services, or is limited access to only basic internet services all you need?

Initial Set Up Costs

Just about every method of connecting to the internet requires you to buy some special hardware and/or software.  The cost of this can range in price from only a few dollars to many hundreds of dollars.

Usage Costs

How much does it actually cost to access the internet, and is the charge a :

  • Flat fee per month with no limits on usage

  • Based on data transferred

  • Based on time connected

  • Some combination of two or three of the above factors

A special word of caution if you're looking at plans that charge for data transfer.  These services often express their costs in harmless looking terms - only a few cents per kB of data transferred.  But even 2c per kB becomes $20 per MB, and if you're doing much web surfing, or receiving emails with attachments, this may become enormously expensive.

Note also that some types of service have different rates if you also subscribe to the company's other services.  This is most commonly the case with cell phone providers, that sometimes offer an 'add on' internet connectivity service to existing account holders that is much less than buying a standalone connectivity service without also having a regular cell phone account.

Coverage

Will you be able to use your connection method when and where you want to?  Obviously this is one of the most important considerations when you're choosing the service option that is best suited for your needs.

Probably most of your traveling will be done either within your own region or within your own country, but sometimes you might also need to find a way to connect when in a different country.  In such cases, totally different cost factors and other considerations may apply.

Speed

Different methods of connecting to the internet offering a range of speeds, with top speeds being as much as 50 times faster than the bottom of the range options.

Particularly when you are traveling, you might find that you have less time to wait for large files to download, and maybe speed is even more important to you.  On the other hand, if you're only using the internet to download a limited number of short emails, then speed is not so necessary.

Compatibility

Some methods of connecting only work with PCs, not with Macs.  And some methods of connecting won't allow you to establish a VPN connection with your office network.

If you have specific programs or unusual hardware, make sure that they will work with your choice of connectivity methods.

Special Hardware

Some types of internet connection require special hardware, or only work on special types of devices.

Internet Connection Options

You have seven main ways to get on the internet. each with strengths and weaknesses associated.

Evaluate each option against the seven criteria above and decide which one suits you best.  Or, more likely, your best solution will be to adopt a strategy involving two or three or more solutions.

Dial up via modem

This is the oldest way to connect to the internet, and still has a lot of good points to it.  Most laptops these days have modems built in to them, and most hotel rooms have data ports or at least modular plugs on their phones, making it easy to connect your computing device's modem to a phone line and then to dial out and into the internet.

Hotel broadband ethernet

Many hotels these days offer fast broadband networking in their hotel rooms - sometimes even for free.  My review explains more about these products.

Wi-Fi Wireless Internet Access

Wi-Fi internet Hotpoints are springing up around the country.  Many airports have some hotpoint coverage, and all Starbucks stores do.  But, as common as they are, it is probably correct to say that 99.99% of the country does not have Wi-Fi access, and the access points that do exist belong to a confusing range of different services, meaning that you invariably find that you need to sign up for many different services in order to get connected in multiple locations.

As such, Wi-Fi is a product that has a lot of promise, but a disappointing reality.  It is great for use within your office or home, but is usually not so convenient while traveling.

For more information on Wi-Fi, read my article on Wi-Fi internet access.

Bluetooth Wireless

Bluetooth is a new technology that is starting to become more common in cell phones, PDAs, and other devices.

It is not, however, a means to access the internet by itself.  It is simply a way for computer type components to communicate between themselves.  If one of those devices also has internet connectivity (eg a cellphone) and the other of the devices can use that connectivity for email and web browsing (eg a PDA) then Bluetooth is one step in the chain between the internet and the final device you are using.  But Bluetooth does not automatically imply internet connectivity by itself.

I discuss and explain more about Bluetooth wireless networking here.

Connecting via a Cell Phone

Modern cell phones have built in modem type adapters that enable them to provide a connection between your laptop or other computer device and the internet.

Using a cell phone to connect to the internet has both one very strong advantage and one very strong disadvantage.  The strong advantage is that cell phone service is almost everywhere you're likely to be traveling, so it is very convenient.  The strong disadvantage is that (at present, but soon to change) cell phone connectivity speeds are very slow and are the slowest way of getting internet access.

Earlier model cellphones connected via a regular type cell phone call, and you paid connect time, same as for any other cell phone call.  These types of calls gave very slow connections - typically 9600 baud (bps) or slower.

More recent cellphones use a 'digital' type connection such as GPRS that can be an 'always connected' type service and which doesn't require the phone to make an 'old fashioned' telephone call to the ISP.  Because the connection can be always on, cell phone companies typically charge you either a flat rate per month or else a fee per MB of data transferred.

Be warned - if you are paying per MB of data transferred, these prices can quickly become extraordinarily expensive.  To hide the outrageous costs they charge, some wireless service providers quote in terms of cents per kB of data - a harmless seeming 2 per kB equates to a hefty $20 per MB.  Spend any amount of time surfing the internet or downloading large emails with attachments, and you'll be paying for multiple megabytes of data.

This type of service can be connected to the internet at the same time as you are also using the phone for a voice call (a bit like DSL sharing your phone line).

The cellphone can be connected to your laptop or PDA either via a special data cable, or perhaps through the IR ports on both units, or via Bluetooth.

Connection speeds are slow, typically around 30kb - 40kb, but with long latency, making for slow interactive internet sessions.  Data rates vary depending on how busy each cell site is, because you're sharing the digital bandwidth with other users of that site (a bit like a cable internet modem connection, only more so).

More more information on this type of connectivity, read my review of one such phone - the Nokia 3650.

And for a review on a PDA that can be used together with the Nokia 3650 to access the internet, read my review of the Palm Tungsten T3.

Note that wireless service providers are just now (early 2004) starting to activate new considerably faster data services.  Verizon and AT&T both are offering services that may - in good conditions - give more than 100kb transfer rates.  These new fast services are called 3G (for 'third generation') services.  And Nextel is trialing a service that it calls 4G which in theory can offer up to T1 bandwidth (1.5 Mb) through a cell phone!

Sierra Card cell phone connection

A twist on the concept of using your cell phone is offered by Sierra Wireless, who have developed a range of PCMCIA cards that have, in effect, a cell phone built onto the card.  These are simply plugged into your laptop (or PDA if it will take PCMCIA cards) and act like any other network card as far as the laptop is concerned, but provide a cellular data connection rather than a normal wired connection.

In reality, such cards offer no better throughput than a regular cell phone, and require you to create a second account with your wireless service provider.  Probably the best value useage plans can be found with T-Mobile, who offer unlimited internet usage for as little as $30/month.

The cards are costly (about $300) to purchase and will quickly become obsolete when the new 3G faster data connections become available.

For more information about these products, read my review of the Sierra AirCard 750.

Using a special device

There are various types of specialty devices that have built in internet connectivity.  These devices usually only offer limited functionality.

An example of such a device is the very popular Blackberry wireless email unit.  Some combination cell phone/PDA devices are also available, for example, the Handspring Treo 600.

Don't confuse these units which directly connect to the internet with other units that have built-in Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth capabilities.  These units are truly self-contained and typically work over much of the country.  The Wi-Fi and Bluetooth units will only work close to a network gateway.

These units offer extremely simple connectivity - you just turn the unit on and you're instantly connected.  But due to their very small keyboards and limited software, they're not well suited for 'power users'.

Internet cafes

Last but not least, sometimes when you're traveling, you can make do simply by visiting internet cafes.  This has the benefit of leaving your heavy computer gear behind, and if you use a program like Web2Mail you can access just about any POP3 or IMAP4 email account.

Internet cafes can also be useful if you do have a laptop.  Sometimes - particularly when I'm in Britain, where hotels charge outrageous costs for every minute you use the phone in the room, I'll take my laptop to an internet cafe and get their permission to simply plug their network cable into my laptop.  This means that at an hourly cost typically very much less than what the hotel would charge for using the room phone, I get fast broadband access to my email and anything else I might wish.

Summary

If connecting to the internet is important to you, you'll probably end up choosing several different methods, because different situations may have different 'best' solutions.

To take a perhaps extreme example, in my case, when I'm traveling, I use a laptop that can connect to the internet via dialup modem, Wi-Fi, Broadband ethernet, or via a cell phone using IR or Bluetooth.  And, in a typical journey, I'll usually end up using all four different methods of connectivity at different times!

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Originally published 13 Feb 2004, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
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