Mobile broadband refers to high-speed Internet access provided by cellular telephone carriers. Using mobile broadband, one can jump online from any device that supports Internet access and is equipped with a cellular modem. The only requirement is that the user be within broadcasting range of a cellular tower that is controlled or subcontracted by the carrier. In short, if you have cell service, you will have Internet access from a taxi, bus, train, park, beach or lobby.
Prior to mobile broadband, the only way to get Internet access outside the home or office was through hotspots. A hotspot provides localized Internet access through a wireless network, often offered for free. Many coffee shops, bookstores and even municipalities maintain hotspots for public use. The drawback of a hotspot is that the broadcast range is limited to the immediate area.
Mobile broadband piggybacked Internet service on existing cellular networks. This began as an easy way to offer products and services to cell phone users, such as ringtones and wallpaper, the ability to check email and even surf the Web. However, cellular Internet was expensive and slow, relative to digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable technologies.
As cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) became more versatile and ubiquitous, the demand for mobile broadband grew. At the same time, cellular networking evolved, making it possible to send more data at faster rates. Prices also dropped, granting it greater affordability. Today, cellular broadband is not just for cell phones and PDAs, but also for computers. Only a cellular modem is required, which can be purchased as a USB dongle or in ExpressCard® format.
Whether a cellular modem is built into the device or purchased separately, it must be branded for the particular carrier that will be providing mobile broadband service. For those with cellular service, it is probably cheapest to stick with this carrier, as discounts are often given for existing customers with cellular plans. However, there are some considerations when choosing a mobile broadband carrier.
The first consideration is coverage. The advantage of cellular broadband is that one can be on the go while maintaining access. Whether for sheer convenience or for business, choosing a carrier that has coverage in the areas required is a primary concern. Note that some carriers advertise widespread coverage while much of it is achieved through roaming contracts. "Roaming" applies when a customer of carrier “A” is in an area that is only covered by cell towers owned by carrier “B.” The customer can use carrier “B”s cell towers to maintain service, but roaming charges might apply, and can be expensive.
The other major consideration is the speed of the carrier’s network. First and second generation, or 1G and 2G networks, gave way to third generation (3G) networks. 3G mobile broadband can funnel data at up to 2 Megabits per second (Mbps), commensurate to a mid-range DSL plan. Fourth generation or 4G networks can transfer data at up to 100 Mbps moving, or 1 Gigabits per second (Gbps) stationary. However, cutting edge technology is often limited geographically until it can become widely implemented. The good news is that carriers are in continual competition with one another to provide the fastest services, so it pays to shop around, but read the fine print.
Plans for mobile broadband can be quite flexible. For those who require unlimited access, a flat monthly rate will apply, but all broadband plans typically include bandwidth caps, including unlimited plans. Cellular broadband can also be purchased on a pay-as-you-go basis, buying a 24 hour pass in an emergency when other networks are unavailable. If an upcoming business trip or vacation is planned, one can also purchase access in weekly increments, ensuring the Internet will be available 24/7. To learn about the myriad of options and cellular modems that are available, visit cellular carriers of your choice.