Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Internet Access Anywhere

Many of us have become used to having Internet access wherever we go. It's no longer sufficient to have Internet access in our homes and offices.

Whether we're at the beach, at a park, in the car, on a train and even in an airplane, we are becoming accustomed to having Internet access.

Most people's mobile device (we used to call them cell phones) can send and receive e-mails and most can even have a built-in Web browser to do something resembling surfing the Internet.

The browsers built into mobile devices are not known for their robust web-surfing capabilities. I still rely heavily on my laptop computer for much of the work I do. I like a full-size keyboard and screen and don't mind carrying around a computer case in most circumstances.

Yet, somehow, my laptop computer seems like a second-class citizen because it doesn't typically have its own built-in Internet access.

To address this, there are many options for people to obtain Internet access just about wherever they are.

First, if you have a device with a data plan from a provider (mobile devices are typical examples of this), you have Internet access wherever the provider has towers. And, you have to pay for this. These plans tend to be OK for doing general e-mail and web browsing, but not much more. The current leader is what's called 3G technology, but 4G (generally referring to the 3rd and 4th Generation of wireless technology) is coming out, Sprint being the first with 4G service in some geographies (not Westport yet).

Second, most devices now have WiFi built-in. About 50 percent of the time, you can find an open WiFi hot spot where you can jump on someone's WiFi. The Town of Westport has a number of areas where it offers free WiFi, such as Compo Beach, the library and the train station. Many merchants also offer WiFi, but sometimes there's a fee to use it.

WiFi can provide speeds about as fast as the local provider's Internet service, but is subject to dropping signals and varying speeds depending on what distance and obstacles are between you and the WiFi antenna.

Third, my favorite Internet access is the old fashioned copper cable stuff that you usually find in homes and offices. While the wiring is harder and more expensive to put in than wireless solutions, it does provide the fastest, most secure solution. It's also the least mobile.

This is where things get interesting. When you take your computer with you, you have a few options for connecting to the Internet. When you take your computer and your mobile device with you, your options increase dramatically.

If you don't have a wired or WiFi connection you can jump onto, but your mobile device has a data plan, you could be in good shape.

One way is called "tethering" where you actually put a cable between your wireless device and your laptop computer and your computer talks to the Internet through your mobile device. Most wireless carriers offer ways to tie your data plan to your computer. This runs anywhere from $5 to $40 per month on top of your normal plan.

Other carriers have a feature to turn your mobile device into a WiFi hot spot. This lets you and typically up to four or five others to use your mobile device to access the Internet. The good news is that multiple people can use the signal. The bad news is that the already slow speed is slowed even further by multiple people. The really bad news is that using your mobile device as a WiFi hot spot can run the battery dead in under two hours. Oh, and there's typically a monthly fee for this service, too. Another option is to pick up something like a MyFi that is a standalone WiFi hotspot that's not tied to any mobile device. Wherever you go, if there's a mobile signal from your carrier, you have Internet service. Service plans for these run between $40 and $60 per month.

My favorite option is a product called PDANet from an oddly named company called June Fabrics (www.junefabrics.com). For a one-time $30 software license fee, you can download the software to your mobile device and laptop computer and piggyback off your mobile device's data plan for no extra monthly charges. Alas, iPhone users are not able to do any of the above without "jailbreaking" their phone, a practice frowned upon by Apple.

The dream of ubiquitous Internet is getting nearer. Right now, it just takes a bit of creativity to build it for yourself.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 13 October 2010.
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