Wi-Fi optimize

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.

22 comments
NickNielsen
NickNielsen

My laptop has an embedded 3G "broadband" card; the maximum connection speed is 3.1 Mbps and is usually 153.6 kbps outside urban areas. The worst wi-fi connection I've ever had still ran at 36 Mbps, and most run at 54 Mbps.

julius.ochoa
julius.ochoa

Im from the Philippines both 3G and Wi-Fi suck here

Maarek Stele
Maarek Stele

Wi-Fi is a full internet connection while 3G is still pretty slow. At home or at a "stop" I'll switch to W-Fi until I get going again. But every time I will have to turn off the wi-fi search to save battery life. The data and pages load faster through the Wi-Fi connection but you are limited on distance, which is why a coffee break or a quick stop to download news feeds is best. Switch back to 3G when you're on the move and leave the Wi-Fi location. The G1 is great in this aspect. A laptop, the Wi-Fi is still better. A 3G will load like a modem.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I mean that as an honest question. Why does wifi suck there. Are you not able to get 802.11g and 802.11n routers locally?

Miikey87
Miikey87

At $1.60 for 60kb of data, ild rather use my wireless heh or wait till i get to my wireless zones.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I hear that you can get higher speeds with 3G but I've not seen many 3G home routers. For now I'll stick with a technology that works still when my service provider's tower goes down.

john3347
john3347

In the US, Verizon currently grandfathers those who bought an unlimited plan before the limited plan became standard. With the 5 GB limit that is currently standard, one must watch their usage closely.

w2ktechman
w2ktechman

not needed. I would hate to 'share' a 3G line :0 3G is superior for roamability. And all that is needed is an adapter (network card). WiFi is superior for a more stationary wireless network, and for wireless that has multiple users.

randy_scadden
randy_scadden

I also find that I can GREATLY increase the life of the battery on my iPhone by connecting to Wifi as opposed to the 3G network. So I have it connect when I'm at work and when I'm at home via Wifi and it just provides for a lot better user experience all around.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I either need to bring my plan down a level or put more effort into that limit. I'm leaning towards the second option. ;)

john3347
john3347

I have used a Verizon Aircard for nearly 2 years now, and recently added a Cradlepoint MBR 1000 Router to the setup. When using the computer on a Wifi network, the Verizon software was continually wanting to be used. I purchased the 3G router and uninstalled the Verizon software completely. I now either use my own wifi provided by the router or someone else's wifi. This setup is powered while traveling in an automobile or Motorhome with a power inverter. (Airplane travel obviously would present problems for this setup) I find that the aircard even provides service in areas that cell phone service is near non-existent. Just don't expect ANYWHERE NEAR advertised speeds with the aircard...... anywhere! edited to correct spelling.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I still hate jumperless modem boards but a radio board controled by modifiable software across multiple platforms? Now that's a company after my own heart.

seanferd
seanferd

Apparently not locked into a single OS either.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

3Gs authentication consists of the UMTS authentication algorithm which uses Rijndael with a 128 bit block length and a 128 bit key length. 3G encryption consists of the KASUMI algorithm using 128 bit key and block size of 64 bits. The algorithm has 8 distinct steps and 8 rounds. I suspect a lot of the problem is the expense of the required receivers to capture the 3G traffic. Still expect that problem to disappear soon due to SDR (Software Defined Radios): http://www.winradio.com/

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

A few companies have phones that can cut from the 3G network to Skyp over wifi automatically. I had hopped it would become more common. 3G is good for roaming when way from one's router though. If you have only 3G though, all your devices become disconnected from the greater network (not so bad) and also from each other (not so good) in your local network. If you had a 3G router then your house could stay connected. I also don't know 3G well enough to know how the security on it is so it may not be a good choice outside of a service provider to mobile phone link.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Thanks, Randy It made a significant difference. I was at home using Wi-Fi and I shut 3G off and the battery lasted almost 40% longer. Thank you for sharing that. It's one less time that I have to mess with my notebook. When I'm at home I have notebook setup for multiple monitors and all sorts of additional devices. It became a pain to undo all of that to use the notebook in a different part of the house. So this is great, thanks again. Also, your praise is very much appreciated. I was having a difficult day and that really helped.

randy_scadden
randy_scadden

So did you get a chance to try that? I also wanted to let you know that I am also a huge fan of yours and always find reading your article's fascinating and insightful. I am just happy that I can give you advice rather than the other way around.

randy_scadden
randy_scadden

I will typically turn my 3G off when I come within range of either my work or home wireless network. I turn the 3G on when I travel in the car because the edge network sends interference into my radio. I find that this almost gives me twice the battery life as running 3G constantly. Does this answer your question Michael?

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

There are a few other phones that also support wifi when in range then switch to the cell network when away. It's a really nice feature. I just hope it doesn't get quashed by service providers who'd rather all mobile minutes be billable. With the iPhone's popularity, that will be harder for the providers to do now though.