Online All the Time: Staying Connected

Not all that long ago, going online away from home meant wrestling with wires, occasionally hooking up strange coupling devices to hotel phones, and even doing a little discrete screwdriver work on the phone’s wall plug. Internet access on the go is much less complicated now, but sometimes it isn’t always as easy as one might hope. Here’s what you need to know to keep connected wherever your travels may take you.

Know Your Options

We currently have two options when it comes to high-speed mobile internet access: Wi-Fi or Mobile (cellular) broadband. Each method has its benefits and drawbacks.

Mobile broadband cards work on the virtually omnipresent cellular network so they are perfect for people who need to get online from places such as cars and trains or other remote places that may not offer Wi-Fi connectivity.

Broadband networks use different standards, and what works in one country may not work in another. Wi-Fi uses high-frequency radio signals, is readily available in most places, and works around the world. Mobile broadband is usually speedier than wireless. How speedy often depends on how close you are to a cellphone tower. Wi-Fi service is often free, broadband requires a monthly access plan.

You can, of course, use both Wi-Fi and Mobile broadband by supplementing your laptops built-in capabilities with a wireless/broadband adaptor.

Wi-Fi Adaptors tend to come in PCMCIA card format and slide into a slot on the side of your computer. You can also get an adaptor that plugs into your machine’s USB port. Choose whatever suits you — USB or Card — there’s little difference between them. Look for an adapter that supports the 802.11n standard and is also compatible with the older and slower 802.11g and 802.11b standards (it’ll say so on the package).

Best Bet: Linksys Wireless-N Notebook Adapter, about $80, www.linksys.com

Mobile Broadband Cards also come in PCMCIA and USB format. The better ones have a small antenna to boost the speed of the connection. As noted above, just like cell phones, these cards don’t always work abroad due to different communications standards. Cards that work in the U.S. will comply with the “CDMA EV-DO” standard; in other countries, the network standard is “GSM.” If you want a card that provides international service, look for dual band service, one that supports CDMA/EV_DO and GSM (GPRS/EDGE).You’ll need to have a usage plan — basically the same idea as the calling plan you have for your cell phone — to use a mobile broadband card.

Best Bet: AT&T’s Option GT Max 3.6 Express ExpressCard works in 125 countries. Card is free from AT&T with purchase of a BroadbandAccess plan (unlimited data plans start at $59.99 a month) www.wireless.att.com.

Using a Mobile Broadband Connection is a snap. When you first use your card, run the setup software that comes with it. After that just insert the card into your computer’s PCMCIA card slot (or USB port) and your computer will likely connect right to the network. Occasionally weather conditions or areas that the service providers refer to as “fringe locations” may provide limited, slow, or no connectivity.

Finding the Hot Spot

Using A Wi-FI Connection can be slightly more complicated as you probably aren’t always connecting to the same network, as you are with Mobile broadband. Most hotels, some motels, B&B’s and hostels, libraries, bookshops, cafes, universities and public parks offer Wi-Fi service for free or a small fee. Places where you can connect to a publicly accessible wireless network for free are called hot spots. To find the hot spots nearest your destination, check here or do an internet search for “Place Wireless Hot spots” (eg: London Wireless Hot spots).

When you’re in a location that provides wireless access, turn on your computer and it will automatically attempt to connect with the network. You’ll see a little icon or notification on your computer screen when you connect.

If you’re connected through a hot spot that provides free access but your web browser insists you’re offline, try restarting your computer. If that doesn’t work, your computer may be defaulting to another connection — click “Start” and go to “Network Connections,” find any connections that aren’t wireless, right-click and hold until the pop-up menu appears and select disable. This will tell your computer you want to use the wireless connection.

If you are using a paid-for connection or a private network belonging to a hotel, you’ll need to pay or register to access the network. To do this, allow your computer to connect to the wireless service and then open up your web browser. You should be automatically directed to a signup page where you enter the information that the hotel provided, or enter your credit card information to pay for an hour or day’s access.

Email and Security Issues

When you’re connected to a public wireless service or your Mobile broadband service, you’ll be able to receive mail through an e-mail program like Outlook, but you may not be able to send e-mail. That’s because most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) block e-mail sent through their network via any other ISP as a spam-fighting measure. To send e-mail, use your ISP’s web mail service (go to your ISP’s web site to see if they provide web mail), or set up a free web mail account with a service like Google’s Gmail, Yahoo, or Hotmail.

Security Concerns: When you’re using a public wireless service, any data you have stored on your computer may be accessible to all other users on the network. Besides having a firewall and up-to-date antivirus program, protect your computer by disabling your wireless card’s Ad-Hoc (peer-to-peer) mode. This helps to prevent anyone else from connecting directly to your computer. The software for your wireless modem/adaptor will allow you to disable Ad-Hoc with a single click.

Also turn off file and printer sharing to stop people from connecting directly to your computer. Windows XP users, go to Control Panel/Network Connections, Select Wireless Network and choose Change Settings of this Connection. Find the setting for File and Printer Sharing and make sure it is unchecked. Mac users should select System Preferences from the Apple menu, open the Sharing folder on the Internet & Network bar, click the Services tab on the selection bar, and if you see “Personal File-Sharing On” click the Stop button.

Mobile broadband has been significantly less of a target than Wi-Fi networks, but turning file and printer sharing off while using the service isn’t a bad idea.

WiMAX

WiMAX has been described as Wi-Fi on steroids, as it’s significantly faster than Wi-Fi. GEt ready, because here it comes. Long anticipated by geeks, WiMAX finally looks to be ready to launch in selected North American cities by the end of 2007, and in Asia and Europe during the next two years. Your next laptop may well have built-in WiMAX connectivity, and adaptor cards will be available soon. No prices for the cards have been set as yet.

On the cellular/broadband side, look for 3G HSPA — High-Speed Downlink Packet Access, which the technology industry sometimes refers to as a “3.5 G” (the “G” stands for generation) network. HSPA is significantly faster and more capable than the current 3G networks we’re accessing now. It’ll likely be rolled out in Europe first, with broad availability in 2009.

Michelle Delio

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