Embedded mobile broadband versus dongles or tethering: Which is best?

4 ways to get online when there's no WiFi in range

by Daniel P. Dern - Mobile broadband -- high-speed wireless data access to the Internet from one of the cellular providers, e.g. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, or Virgin Mobile -- is just the ticket for when you want/need to go online with your notebook and there's no WiFi in range (or none that you can legitimately access, or want to pay for).

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Assuming you want mobile broadband for your notebook computer (and who, budget permitting, wouldn't?), in addition to the service from one of the providers, you need hardware: the radio chip, and an antenna.

There are four ways I know of to provision for this: embedded, external adapter, mobile broadband router, and tethering.

Here's a quick look at these choices and their pros and cons.

Embedded in your notebook

Here, the Wireless WAN (WWAN) radio and associated circuitry are in your notebook, usually as a small add-in circuit to the motherboard, and the antenna is built right into the case, typically the display frame. In normal use, you'll never see them.

Until recently, you had to decide which carrier you wanted in advance, because the WWAN chip was carrier-specific, but in many cases, Qualcomm's GOBI chip lets you decide after purchase.

I've tried one notebook with embedded broadband and seen others. It's convenient and simple.

Advantages

  • Better performance. All the notebook and carrier sources I've talked to over the past year or so agree on this. One carrier rep told me, "An embedded solution works faster, has less power drain, and has a better-performing antenna -- about 20db gain -- which can mean access in more areas."
  • One less thing for your company (or you) to provision
  • One less thing for the user to remember to bring, and not lose -- and it's harder to break, compared to a USB dongle sticking out the side of the machine.
  • Service and support go through whoever you got the notebook from, and are typically for the same contract length as the notebook's.
  • Potential other benefits, e.g., GOBI 2000 provides "assisted GPS" -- using data from cell towers to aid in positioning.

Disadvantages

  • Your contract service is with the machine, so you better be committed to it. Can you move the contract to a new machine? I don't know.
  • GOBI currently doesn't support WiMAX or other 4G networks, so you're back to the adapter or tethering to use those, for now.

External adapter

This can be either a USB adapter (a.k.a. "dongle") or, if your machine has the appropriate slot, an ExpressCard or PCMCIA card.

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These are readily available at wireless phone service stores, probably costing $50-$150, plus the service contract.

I've tried this, with iPass. The dongle (which includes software to install) has worked with several notebooks. But it's one more thing to remember and wrangle.

Advantages

  • Not tied to a specific notebook, etc.
  • Easier to provision mobile broadband to a pool of users.
  • May be easier to upgrade versus embedded chips. (Maybe not.)

Disadvantages

  • Yet one more thing to bring/forget/lose.
  • May not give as good performance/speed as embedded 3G.

Mobile broadband router

A.k.a. "mobile hotspot." For example, the Novatal MiFi.

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This is a mashup of a mobile broadband radio and a WiFi access point, providing local WiFi service connecting to the Internet, supplying WiFi to multiple -- typically, up to five -- notebooks, phones, cameras, etc.

Advantages

  • Lets you share the single connection among multiple devices, users.
  • Lets you provision a room or location without needing a smartphone that can stay where the users are.
  • Saves your phone battery charge
  • Many of these, being little Linux machines, also let you load and run some apps.

Disadvantages

  • Another thing to carry/lose.
  • May be carrier or at least radio-tech specific (what, no GOBI versions?).
  • Tethering

    If you've got a smartphone with a data plan, you may be able to "tether" your notebook to it -- connect, via cable, Bluetooth or WiFi -- and use its wide-area connectivity. Some carriers charge extra for tethering, some don't.

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    I just got an iPhone 4, and have paid for the "tethering" option, I'll let you know how that works out. One friend has been doing this (with a different carrier and device) happily enough.

    Some smartphones let the WiFi be used like a hotspot, by multiple devices and users.

    Advantages

    • You're carrying this anyway; why also carry an adapter or mobile router?
    • Why pay for a second data plan? (Although the tethering charge may be comparable to a second plan.)

    Disadvantages

    • Will run down your phone battery faster.

    The bottom line

    In general, if you've got a smartphone, tethering is probably your best bet. But if you use one notebook regularly for your work and you need the performance of embedded service (and your budget can swing it), embedded may be worth it.

    Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology writer based in Newton Center, MA. His web site is www.dern.com and his technology blog is TryingTechnology.com.

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