Networking

Choosing the right wireless broadband laptop card comes down to service

Wireless broadband access anywhere for your laptop using a PCMCIA card is available from several vendors. After using similar products from Sprint, Cingular, and Verizon, the conclusion is that it's not so much technology as service that determines your best bet.

This article is also available as a TechRepublic download.

What a great idea -- wireless broadband access anywhere, anytime for your laptop using a PCMCIA card and cellular technology and infrastructure, and at a reasonable price to boot. The only question is which service provider to use. I recently tried wireless broadband products from three vendors. The products from Sprint, Cingular and Verizon all tested well in the Louisville, KY, metropolitan area in a very non-rigorous trial using the TechRepublic TestLabs HP Tablet PC running Windows XP. For most users, the determining factor when choosing which service to purchase is going to come down to which is willing and able to offer the best service. Here, in a nutshell, are my observations.

What was tested

I used each of these products in an HP Tablet PC for approximately a week. I attended meetings, surfed the Web, read e-mail -- just general everyday uses. To raise the bar on our experiment, fellow TechRepublic senior editor Jody Gilbert took the devices to her rural Indiana home to see if their respective services would reach.

The products we tested were:

  • Sprint -- Sprint Mobile Broadband Card PX-500
  • Cingular -- Cingular 3G Laptop Connect Card
  • Verizon -- Verizon Wireless PC5750 PC Card

Each of the cards performed admirably in the metropolitan area of Louisville, but only the offering from Cingular could find a signal in the rural Indiana area about 40 miles outside of town (Figure A).

Figure A

Louisville area

How they were tested

My non-rigorous testing involved the Flash speed tests found on the DSLReports Web site. For each card, I ran the Flash test on a server located on the East Coast and then ran it again for a server on the West Coast. The complete results are available in First Look photo galleries published several weeks ago, but Figures B, C, and D give you the gist of the results.

Figure B

Sprint

Figure C

Cingular

Figure D

Verizon

Click on the photo gallery links below to see the full results of the speed tests for each card:


As you can see, for the most part, each vendor's card performed more or less the same when downloading data. However, on some of the tests, the Verizon card showed about double the speed as the other two when uploading. That's significant for users like me, who are uploading almost as much as they are downloading.

Because each of the cards performed well with only minor differences in both download and upload speeds, the determining factor for choosing one over another may boil down to service and software.

Software

Each vendor provides the necessary proprietary software to establish a connection for its respective PC cards. The functions provided are the basics of:

  • Installing the drivers
  • Configuring the device
  • Authenticating access to the service, and
  • Establishing the connection

While each vendor's software worked adequately, my personal preference was for the offering from Cingular. Figures E, F, and G show you a basic screenshot for each.

Figure E

Sprint

Figure F

Cingular

Figure G

Verizon

Service

Sprint, Cingular, and Verizon all have Web sites where you can manage your account, pay your bill, and do all of the other things you need to do when you purchase services from a cellular provider. Perhaps the most important service they provide on these sites is coverage maps that show where their respective services are available. For most cities of significant size, you will find service is available from all three vendors (and, depending on where you are, probably more). Outside of those areas, the coverage could well be hit or miss, which will require some research on your part.

To help you distinguish one vendor from another, I gave representatives of Sprint, Cingular, and Verizon the opportunity to answer two questions regarding their services:

Question 1

The three wireless cards that I have looked at so far all performed well in my area. For the most part, whichever company one chooses, the actual performance of the physical connection will be similar. This observation would suggest that the criteria for choosing a particular service will come down to several factors other than the actual broadband connection:

  • Coverage area
  • Reliability
  • Customer service

How does your company and its wireless broadband service distinguish itself from the competition now? What is planned in the future to distinguish your product?

Sprint: (Miles McMillin)

Sprint Nextel continues to be the industry's wireless data leader, offering its customers the largest mobile broadband network today with plans to be the first to market with 4th generation technology, WiMAX. On Monday, March 26, Sprint announced that Kansas City will be one of the initial WiMAX markets launched, expected to be completed sometime in 2008. Today, Sprint has the most wireless broadband coverage of any carrier through its Sprint Mobile Broadband Network (EV-DO), which reaches 209 million people nationwide, in 10,783 communities as well as 1,029 airports. The network allows users to access audio, video and data applications with handheld and connection card devices.

Sprint was also the leader in rolling out an EV-DO Rev A network and now covers nearly 125 million people in 5399 communities with the faster EV-DO REV A technology. Sprint expects to upgrade its entire mobile broadband network to EV-DO Revision A by year end. With Revision A technology, peak download data rates increase to 3.1 Mbps (from 2.0 with EV-DO Rev 0) and peak upload data rates increase to 1.8 Mbps (from 144 kbps). Average download speeds improve to 600 kbps to 1.4 mbps (from 400 -700) and average uplink speeds become 350 – 500 kpbs (versus 50 – 70 kpbs). The faster data rates provided by EV-DO Rev A can enable richer applications and services such as high-speed video telephony, music on demand, video messaging, large file uploads and high performance push-to-talk capability.

When it comes to a Rev A portfolio, nobody has a larger one than Sprint. Sprint currently offers five EV-DO Revision A compatible computer cards including the Novatel Wireless U720 USB device and the Novatel Wireless EX720 express card, Sprint's first EV-DO Revision A capable ExpressCardTM. Sprint also offers EV-DO Revision A capabilities in a variety of embedded solutions including laptops like Sony’s VAIO VGN-TXN10 Series and ruggedized stand-alone connectivity devices like Airlink’s PinPoint X and Raven X.

Sprint EV-DO Revision A users with the Novatel Wireless U720, the Novatel S720 and Novatel EX720 now have the power to utilize the first Location Based Services (LBS) capability on a Revision A connection card through an enhanced version of the Sprint Connection Manager software. Users of these cards can perform location based searches to find a nearby restaurant, gas station, bank and other points of interest without having to input their current location.

Sprint provides its customers with added value by offering a free GPS capability with three of its mobile broadband cards, truly unlimited data plans and no requirement that customers also have a separate voice plan.

Experts also recognize Sprint's EV-DO Rev A as a industry leader as it won the PC Magazine Editors' Choice Award.

Cingular: (Ritch Blasi)

The cards today receive average downlink speeds between 400-700kbps -- the network is currently maximized at 1.8mbps, when the network is upgraded to handle 3.6mbps, since the cards are rated for 3.6mbps the average data speeds should increase to 700-1000mbps. Additionally, unlike the data cards for Verizon and Sprint, who use EV-DO technology, our cards can be used to access broadband connections in about three dozen countries and Edge/GPRS data connections in more than 115 countries

Verizon: (Michelle Gilbert)

You are absolutely correct that network coverage and reliability as well as customer service are all important factors when considering wireless service. Let me address each of the three.

Network coverage area/reliability

For Verizon Wireless, network coverage and reliability really go hand-in-hand, as we spend millions of dollars on our network in Kentucky -- and billions across the U.S. -- improving network coverage and overall reliability each year. Let me give you more specifics.

Verizon Wireless has invested $35 billion in the last seven years -- $5 billion on average every year since the company was formed -- to increase the coverage and capacity of its national network and to add new services. More than $183 million of this investment was spent in Kentucky and southern Indiana.

This significant investment is spent in a number of ways, including:

  • Activating new cell sites to improve network coverage and capacity;
  • Upgrading equipment on existing cell sites to increase network capacity, which enables more users on our network at a time;
  • Installing battery back up and permanent generators at our cell sites and switches to ensure network functionality during times of crisis -- be it a tornado, hurricane or thunderstorm;
  • Rolling out our next-generation high-speed broadband network, which gives our customers access to the Internet and to their e-mail and corporate data at faster speeds, uploading files five to six times faster than before.

Customer Service

Customer service is an important differentiator in the intensely competitive wireless industry. Improving the overall experience our customers have with us -- whether they visit a store, call us or e-mail us -- is a high priority.

And, we’re very focused on making it as easy as possible for customers to do business with us. Let me explain what I mean.

As wireless service providers vie to convince the public of their network superiority, there’s a lot of creative advertising clutter, which can be confusing for customers. We’ve just introduced a new initiative, called Test Drive, which enables customers to try our network virtually risk-free for 30 days and lets them judge for themselves which company has the best network. If customers decide to switch to another wireless service provider before the end of their 30-day trial period, Verizon Wireless will refund all of their voice charges and activation fees. No other major wireless company offers a 30-day test drive of its network with a money-back guarantee if a customer is not completely satisfied. In other words, we’re putting our money where our mouth is.

Also, last fall, we introduced a declining early termination fee (ETF) for new contract customers. Now, when a customer signs up for or renews Verizon Wireless service, he or she is not required to pay a fixed early termination fee if he or she chooses to terminate service before the end of the minimum term. We became the first wireless company to introduce a declining early termination fee nationwide

Question 2

New technologies are on the horizon such as Wi-Max, which will be marketed at the same customer-base as the wireless broadband services of your company. How do you plan to compete with these new technologies? Do you plan to offer Wi-Max or other similar technology to your customers in the future?

Sprint: (Miles McMillin)

In step with its pioneering technology spirit, Sprint Nextel plans to compete the way it always has, by being a leader. In August 2006, Sprint Nextel announced the selection of WiMAX (IEEE802.16e-2005) technology for a next generation wireless network which would utilize the company’s extensive 2.5GHz spectrum assets, and formation of a unique business ecosystem designed to spur widespread adoption of WiMAX devices and services. At the CTIA Convention in Orlando, Fla., this week, Sprint announced several service areas for a 2008 launch of WiMAX, including Kansas City. This combination creates a time-to-market advantage for implementing the first large scale mobile WiMAX network expected to cover at least 100 million people by year-end 2008. At Sprint, "the Internet is everywhere" vision is becoming a reality.

Sprint’s Mobile Broadband Network (EV-DO) already enables Sprint Nextel customers to enjoy an enhanced mobile broadband experience with a robust portfolio of handsets, pc cards and embedded computers. The next generation wireless broadband network (4G) is expected to further cement Sprint’s data leadership by expanding into a broader array of data-centric devices. Given the complementary nature of the next generation wireless broadband network and our current CDMA mobile broadband, Sprint Nextel will continue with its rollout of EV-DO Rev A and look for opportunities to integrate the benefits of both while exploiting the new business opportunities uniquely provided by a 4G capability.

Cingular: (Ritch Blasi)

Our GSM 3G UMTS/HSDPA network will evolve to something called LTE (long term evolution), which is expected to provide downlink speeds of 100mbps.

Verizon: (Michelle Gilbert)

Finally, you asked about what we have planned for the future to distinguish us from competition, including Wi-Max. While we cannot share a timeframe for future enhancements to our wireless broadband network, I can assure you that we’re always looking to improve the speed and overall capabilities of the service we provide. We never have and never will stay stagnant when it comes to improving our customer’s overall experience and unlocking solutions for their needs tomorrow.

Bottom line

As you can see from the answers each representative gave me, choosing which service provider to use for your wireless broadband access is really a matter of area coverage and service. The other observation you can glean from the responses is that these companies really want your business. The competition is intense, which gives the customer more control over the conversation. Competition also means that each vendor is spending large amounts of capital toward better service.

I found the representatives of Sprint, Cingular, and Verizon I worked with in compiling this article to be very professional and very passionate about the products and companies they represented. It was refreshing. Long gone are the days when Lilly Tomlin's phone operator character could say, "We are the phone company, we don't have to care." The intensity of the competition gives me confidence that all of these vendors will continue to develop better networks that extend to more areas. Which one you decide to use may come down to which one you feel most comfortable dealing with, because in terms of the actual broadband connection, each delivered a solid product and service.

About

Mark Kaelin is a CBS Interactive Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He is the host for the Microsoft Windows and Office blog, the Google in the Enterprise blog, the Five Apps blog and the Big Data Analytics blog.

23 comments
hughesfam
hughesfam

I'm looking for a pay-as-you- go wireless broadband laptop card (they are available in Europe). Has anyone heard of one here?

kennsangster
kennsangster

Verizon's customer service is the true differentiator!!! I left Cingular after listening in on a cutomer service call to Verizon placed by my sister...Verizon places the customer first...ummm Cingular not so much!

merrilymccarthy
merrilymccarthy

Hi, I use Verizon wireless Internet Connection Card for my service on my Mac Book Pro. I also use a Power Inverter for use in my car. I connect the three pieces of equipment and travel around, park anywhere and hook up the three techno devices, and this I connect to my Saturn Vue. Well, needless to mention it works wonders. I take my office anywhere I choose to go and hook up to the internet, using all 4 pieces of connectivity; my car, my laptop, my verizon internet, and my car power inverter....it is amazing what technology can do. Now then, I have traveled all over the San Joaquin Valley here in California and gone up to Lost Lake and gone to Avacado Lake. Avacado Lake is a dark area...no towers anywhere, so I could not connect there, however, drive aways and get up a little higher and presto, back on the internet. Up in Oakhurst, California and around Bass Lake, I hooked up and connected all day, with my own view of the beautiful lake and the playing people, the fragrant pines and the lovely mansions...(would love to live in one of those.) The cost I pay puts the producers of these products I use comfortably housed in all of those ecological niches. Nice. This is my go anywhere office! Onto Mars or the moon.... I purchased my products to more effectively educate myself for my degree in anthropology/archealogy and have found them most useful as a traveling office as well. Merrily McCarthy merrilymccarthy@csufresno.edu

rporrata
rporrata

As a wireless software developer, I?ve worked with each network & others and know they have their strengths/weaknesses that realistically can only be tested by going to locations where your customer base is and running applications off the platforms you use (i.e.: laptops, pdas, embedded devices, etc.). Environment is also a coverage factor. (i.e: refelection, absorbtion, interference). Many coverage maps will tell you all is good in an area, if needed check it out before going full bore and giving away big contracts. Also check their policy for crossing networks regionally (i.e.: US, Canada, Mexico).

mousejn
mousejn

I have a customer that setup remote construction office around the country and they state for speed and coverage Sprint is the best. Cingular in most areas is the slowest and has the least coverage.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

I was pleasantly pleased with the performance of all three PC Cards in my hometown area of Louisville, KY, but I am curious about other areas. Are you using a wireless broadband card from a cellular company? How is the service? Are you considering purchasing a wireless service? What factors do you deem most important when deciding which vendor to contract with?

rjamesparsons
rjamesparsons

Very well said by rporrata. As suggested and relative to many of the other comments shared, surveying each specific market seems to be a key to getting the right provider as their coverage seems to vary by market. And though wireless branding might suggest otherwise, it seems inaccurate to generalize with statements such as "Sprint has the best coverage" or "Verizon provides a superior network." For instance, there not only seems to be variance involved in wireless provider coverage from state to state but even from community to community. In a given area depending upon specific locality, environmental factors, user requirements, etc. a given provider might have a superior solution to another and weaker products in a neighboring community. A couple of resources to consider in identifying conditions for a given market include: - http://www.cellreception.com/coverage - http://www.deadcellzones.com Some factors that might impact a providers coverage variance between markets could be the background of a particular provider organization (e.g., PSTN vs. pager, retail vs. commercial products), how much of their local coverage was "built-out" by the provider vs. attained through acquisition, the wireless technology that they utilize and/or will utilize in the future, specific wireless spectrum that each has licensed in a given area, the support/opposition toward infrastructure expansion provided by a local populace as well as municipal and state gov't, who the early technical adopters were in a particular area, etc. etc. etc. And unfortunately current investment in a given area doesn't necessarily reflect the performance of a particular network as it can be rather subjective depending upon how much infrastructure already existed for that particular provider prior to investment. Organizational culture as well as intended customer targets seem to also impact the quality of customer service each provides For example, with a focus on 18-34 year old males T-Mobile seems to provide liberal doses of Hollywood actresses and more cool, hip products. Meanwhile, Verizon's fixation upon businesses shows with the personal level of service they try to provide.

sctang73
sctang73

IF your customers are on Sprint's relatively new EVDO Rev A network, they will be blazing along. No one else comes close - YET. If they are on "regular" EVDO Rev 0, then Sprint is pretty much tied w/ Verizon in terms of coverage and performance. Cingular's wireless performance could be better, but it is not the worst. Same with their coverage. They do have the upper hand, however, if the customer needs to use this type of service outside of North America - EDGE & GPRS are available in Europe and Asia. T-Mobile is bringing up the rear in terms of coverage and performance/ speed. Their only saving grace is that their slow data network (GPRS) is available internationally. T-Mobile products are moving towards EDGE, but they are doing it rather slowly when compared to Cingular.

dt6string
dt6string

I tested several of these wireless broadband cards from several different cellular providers over three years ago and haven't played much with them since. Being able to connect from anywhere, your car, the restaurant, wherever, was fantastic. One of the major factors of my testing these cards was to test their compatibility with the Corp Network, which was using a Checkpoint VPN solution. Some cards gave an IP address in the 10.x.x.x range, while others gave IP's in the 192.168.x.x range. This factor was huge. This company's network already had a nat'd internal segment in the 10.x.x.x range, and therefore a card that allocated that address range would NOT connect with the VPN server, as it was considered to already be internal. The vendor that I really wanted to use was unable, at that time, to provide a solution. In other words I couldn't change and neither could they, the IP address I was allocated by their network. This made the final choice fairly simple, as it then came down to which had best coverage area, as many have already agreed. I'm not sure if this is a factor any longer. Mark, or anyone else, has this issue arised or have the ISP's gained the ability to change the IP range allocated by their networks for compatibility?

rmorain
rmorain

If your Cingular phone works great in that area wouldn't your wireless broadband card? or do they run on seperate networks?

mdlarue
mdlarue

I moved to a rural area, 20 miles from a city. I have no choice for broadband. Satellite is it. It does not work in rain or snow, is slow and extrememly expensive. Broadband providers just laugh when I ask when something, anything will be available. It is unfortunate that US carriers can't build out the broadband infrastructure as they promised to do.

thensley
thensley

Declining early termination fee (ETF)- CRAP. The wireless industry is predatory. One purchases hardware and a service that is unkonwn until tried. That service is subject to change at anytime. I have tried all three that you covered in this article. My home is three miles out of the city. All three providers work great everywhere in my daily travel but not at my home. I have to sit on the porch outside to get a reliable connection. Sometimes it is really cold outside. All three say, "THAT IS UNFORTUNATE - PAY THE ETF RANSOM AND YOU CAN GO ELSEWHERE". The right and ethical answer is if I get a free something for a binding contract so be it. If I pay for the phone and the service is not adequate then I should be able to walk. The entire company to customer relationship needs to be reviewed. Sooner or later a Toyota thinking wireless provider will come along and the BIG THREE will be forgotten as their empires crumble.

crazijoe
crazijoe

Our company is in Nebraska and we have salesmen that cover the entire state. At present we are using Verizon and our contract is up in a couple months. In Omaha, the coverage is excellent. But outside of Omaha, it is just horrible, even in Lincoln. Our in town salesmen are using broadband cards and our salesmen outside of Omaha, are using voice plan cards running at 14.4 and sometines barely get a signal. 14.4 is just enough to push their orders in. We had Sprint and Alltel give use a couple demo cards to use and it was a major difference. Even in the desolete areas they were pushing their orders ultra fast. They were please and didn't want to give up the cards. Something else that left sour grapes in my mouth with Verizon was when we first got our contract with them 2 years ago, they said that our Omaha slaesman have broadband cards and will be on the broadband network. Last year Verizon came out with their "New" Broadband network. I asked our rep what the hell have we been paying for. He said that it wasn't the broadband network but it was faster than the regular voice network. He also said that the new broadband network shows up in the VZ access manager as "National Access - Broadband Access" I looked in our VZ Access manager and it shows up as "National Access - Broadband Access". But our download speed is only 256KBs. All he said was "wow, that's strange." He was going to "check into it" and get back to me. Yea right. I guess he has bigger fish to fry and our $2300 a month is not good enough for him. IMHO, my experience with verizon just stinks and I cannot see using them again. They would have to do alot in this area to have me stay with them. When our contract is up with Verizon we plan on going with Alltel since they own all the towers in Nebraska.

rfredtelles1
rfredtelles1

I have used a verizon aircard for about two years and am very pleased with it. i have tried it in tx and az and even had service waaaayyyyy out in the boonies of northern tx in the mountains granted not as good as in down town phoenix but service fred

telephone
telephone

Service is set by the tower sending the signal and these are kept track of by the zipcode they reside in. It is importain to know that some zipcodes are for a signal building or box in a given city. It is also importaint to know that each vendor then know the % of coverage for that zipcode (something they are usually unwilling to share (even with their own sales staff). These vendors are missing the real market by going after teens when businesses will jump on this as soon as they provide a usable coverage map. Why buy interent survices from a hotel if I can own cellular service at all the hotels I maybe going too. - My kid is not getting this service but my employees will if we can document coverage..

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

They are on separate frequencies as I understand it, so a good cell phone signal does not automatically mean wireless broadband. You'll have to do some research for your area to know for sure.

crazijoe
crazijoe

2 separate networks. Cells use a voice network and Wireless broadband use a data network. Most carriers will have a fallback to the voice network, at a slower speed on their broadband cards, if you are not in a broadband coverage area.

jakesrefrig
jakesrefrig

I notice that this was posted quite awhile ago, but I didn't know if you'd found any help in your area other than satellite. We live 30 miles east of Kansas City, and we only have satellite providers as well. However, we did purchase the AT&T (shown as the Cingular on this info.) and it works well. If you have cell phone service in your area, that provider should have something that works....but may only be on a laptop. My desktop did not have a slot to accept the original wireless card, however they now make them as a USB connection which should work on a desktop. Our satellite service, Wildblue is horrible, very expensive and the only advantage is our phone line is no longer busy. I am in the process of researching further ATT products to use on the laptop we got to replace our desktop, that's how I ended up seeing your post. Call your cell phone provider and they should have something now...I can't wait to cancel my Wildblue/Gotsky service!

crazijoe
crazijoe

They do. It's called Broadband over Power Lines (BPL). But the telco and cable companies don't like the ideal because they are the internet supreme beings. But that's a different subject. Let's see how far WiMAX will get.

angry_white_male
angry_white_male

Very happy with Verizon... both with the air card and with a smart-phone tether. Normally see download speeds in the T1 range, upload is capped at 153 kbps. But location is everything. Trip to LA I've been on - works fine from a hotel downtown, but a hotel near LAX, it's awful (slower speed and high latency... presumably due to congestion). In the 1XRTT areas, works fairly well - ISDN speeds. Great performance remoting in back to the office via Citrix.

angry_white_male
angry_white_male

Very happy with Verizon... both with the air card and with a smart-phone tether. Normally see download speeds in the T1 range, upload is capped at 153 kbps. But location is everything. Trip to LA I've been on - works fine from a hotel downtown, but a hotel near LAX, it's awful (slower speed and high latency... presumably due to congestion). In the 1XRTT areas, works fairly well - ISDN speeds. Great performance remoting in back to the office via Citrix.

walterfdoyle
walterfdoyle

I have take my verizon card on Amtrak from Providence to Orlando at speeds upwards of 110 mph and have had contiuous service with exception of a 25 to 35 mile stip after leaving Savannha GA. I have been on their service for almost 4 years or so and have implemented 6 other road warriors all are completely satisfied. Always received excellent service for the 4 service calls I have had to make of the years.

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