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.

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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


Figure C


Figure D


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.


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


Figure F


Figure G



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

Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to,, and TechRepublic.

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