Networking

Wi-Fi or 3G: Which is better for mobile users?

Having used both Wi-Fi and 3G data networks for accessing the Internet on-the-go for more than a year, Paul Mah shares his experiences with each. Is there a clear winner?

Where I live in Singapore, a government initiative called Wireless SG has seen to the creation of free, island-wide access to the Internet. Implemented via wireless Wi-Fi networks, a compulsory online registration is all it takes to create the user-id and password required for subsequent logins. No payment is necessary, and coverage is pretty ubiquitous where locations within business district and town centers are concerned.

Prior to the creation of the requisite Wi-Fi network needed to support Wireless SG, I signed up to access the Internet on-the-go via the use of a 3G USB data dongle. Lately, I have switched to doing the same via my BlackBerry Bold by means of direct tethering or using Bluetooth.

Bearing in mind the disparity in price plans and availability with your region, what are the real-life advantages and disadvantages of each solution to the digital nomad? Here are my observations.

Internet via Wi-Fi

Despite the hype and investments in 3G and 3.5G networks, the fact of the matter is that Wi-Fi networks — where available — do lend themselves to a faster and more consistent Internet experience. While it is true that a laptop with wireless switched off will invariably experience a longer battery life, connecting via Wi-Fi does consume less power compared to a 3G data dongle or data card.

Still, while I always try to connect via Wi-Fi first, there are a couple of annoying problems that crop up from time to time. First of all would be the occasions when Wi-Fi points at some locations just simply refuse to serve up the Internet access. A variant of that would be extraordinarily lagging Internet access despite the absence of other Wi-Fi users in the cafe, for example.

Once, when I was out of town and needed to submit an assignment via e-mail, the free Internet access provided by the cafe at the hotel lobby simply stopped working. After rebooting my laptop a couple of times, I finally went in search of the manager. I persuaded her to restart the wireless access point, and voila, it worked again.

Unfortunately, one can hardly count on the willingness of the staff to restart access points; and neither is it a guaranteed solution. Moreover, the location of access points might not even be known or within the jurisdiction of those present. As you can imagine, unexpected downtimes like the above can be extremely disruptive to plans, especially if you need Internet access urgently.

Internet via 3G/cellular data networks

One thing is for certain about the advantages of 3G data networks — it wins hands down in terms of sheer pervasiveness — at least in Singapore. In fact, I am hard-pressed to think of locations where cellular data access is not available. There was at least once when I connected via 3G on a moving train in order to submit an urgent writing assignment!

On the down side, though, accessing the Internet via 3G networks is generally slower compared to Wi-Fi networks. Despite marketing collaterals to the contrary, the fact is that the various advertised 3.5G "broadband" speeds of 7.2 Mbps or even 14.4 Mbps are really a myth where real-world usage is concerned.

In my personal experience as well as what I've heard in various informal surveys, approximately 1 to 2 Mbps of data speeds seems to be the norm. In addition, actual data speeds can be slow in areas not covered by 3G. When that happens, you will likely be stuck with excruciating GPRS or EDGE data rates. Another downside to the use of 3G data dongles or data modems is that they sap battery life from a laptop much faster than Wi-Fi will.

In conclusion

I personally attempt to connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi networks whenever available. When connected to public networks, I always perform an encrypted VPN connection back to the college where I teach before I start accessing the Internet. Where Wi-Fi networks are not available, I use my BlackBerry Bold as a data modem instead, leveraging its unlimited data plan.

What are your experiences with Wi-Fi and/or cellular data access where you live?

Paul Mah is an independent tech writer, covering a range of topics from enterprise IT to mobile technology. Several times a week, he also indulges in teaching IT-related topics at a local polytechnic. You can reach him via his contact page at TechatPlay.com. Read his full bio and profile.

About

Paul Mah is a writer and blogger who lives in Singapore, where he has worked for a number of years in various capacities within the IT industry. Paul enjoys tinkering with tech gadgets, smartphones, and networking devices.

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