Guide to the Cellular Internet

Have you not imagined the idea of being able to have internet access on your laptop at all times no matter where you are? For ages, the only way to do this was to get an expensive serial modem computer kit ($200) for your cell phone and use it to dial into a dialup ISP at approximately 9.6-19.2 kbps. As you can imagine, this was terribly slow and expensive. Factor in consistently poor reception, and the experience was pretty painful.

Now that 2G and 3G cellular service is available, that dream has been coming true. 3G speeds are usually in the neighborhood of 100 kbps, and companies. All the major providers offer PCMCIA cellular cards for laptops, most phones have fairly inexpensive connectivity kits ($50 or less), and some phones even include built-in Bluetooth support for cable-less connection to Bluetooth-enabled computers.

For 2 years, I occasionally used a SprintPCS AirCard PCMCIA cellular card with an unlimited plan, and for the past 6 months, I’ve used a Verizon Motorola V265 phone with a USB connection kit and have traveled all over between California and Alabama. I’ll detail my experiences later in this article.

What is cellular Internet?
Cellular internet access uses the cell phone network to connect. The performance is limited by the capabilities of the phone and the cell tower it is connected to. That performance could range anywhere from 14.4 kbps to 300+ kbps, but typical digital speeds are 50-120 kbps up/down. 300+ kbps is just starting to arrive in very few cities, but it is expected to continue replacing existing networks.

Wherever you can get a cellular signal, you can get cellular internet access. Faster speeds are only available when you have a digital signal. If the signal drops, your connection will drop as well, just like any other phone call. So, you can be in a car riding down the interstate and have internet access the entire time.

If you are using a phone to connect, it will use minutes just like any other call, or you can set it up with a specific data plan. If you are using a PCMCIA cellular card, then you’ll have to have a separate data plan for that card.

The current data plans are typically 20-80 MB/month of transfer (or unlimited), which is VERY low for the $20-60/mo it will cost. To give you some idea, 20 MB can be downloaded in a little over an hour at 120 kbps. Over the past 6 months, my lowest month was 11 MB and my highest was 300 MB (the last month) for an average of about 100 MB/month. Without unlimited access, I’d either be cut off or the bills would be astronomical.

What ISN’T cellular Internet?
It’s no replacement for broadband internet. Cable/DSL speeds are usually 1.5-6 Mbps down and 128-384 kbps up, and latency (how quick responses come) is about 50-150 ms. Cellular internet service is usually about 100 kbps up and down, and latency is about 400-600 ms. Cable and DSL can be easily shared amongst multiple computers, but that is much more difficult for cellular internet.

Similarly, it is no replacement for 802.11 WiFi. While 802.11 is low range (roughly 100 ft.), it is also 5-25 Mbps up/down to your local network, and then you can use your broadband internet connection from that. WiFi is commonly available in coffee shops, bookstores, internet cafes, hotels, airports, and other businesses, and it’s often even free to connect to.

How to get it

Dedicated Data Plans
This is the only option for a PCMCIA cellular modem, and it is the most common option for different cellular providers. You’ll have to buy the modem (typically about $200) and then sign up for service. Currently, unlimited data internet is $60/mo if you sign up for a 2 year contract. Otherwise, it is usually $80-100/mo. Because 20-80 MB is very limiting, it’s usually best to get an unlimited plan.

With Sprint and other cell providers, you’ll need to add some sort of data plan to your existing cell plan in order to get digital internet through the cell provider.

Most cellular providers allow for you to create/destroy plans easily. So if you only travel occasionally, you can pay for the unlimited rate for those months and then save money on the other months. The main downside to this idea is that it is quite a bit of extra legwork. One other downside is that you may find you are used to connecting everywhere, and the down months might give you a bit of… uhhh…. withdrawal.

Using your existing cell phone and (upgrading) your cell plan
I’ve only seen this option available for Verizon. You can use their NationalAccess plan to connect to their data network for no extra charge, and it only uses minutes from your cell plan. If you have unlimited nights and weekends, then you can be connected to the internet for no charge.

A downside to this method is that many cell phones cannot be charged while connected to a computer. So you won’t be able to stay connected to the internet for hours on end. Another downside is that you cannot receive calls while you are online, but with Verizon, I am able to be notified of new voicemail messages. I don’t know about other companies.

HowardForums is a good place to search and ask for information about this.


PCMCIA cell modems
PCMCIA cell modems connect to the PCMCIA port (aka PC Card or CardBus) in a laptop. You can get a PCMCIA port for a desktop as well, but it requires an additional adapter in the front of the computer.

PCMCIA cell modems are sweet because they are inside the laptop with no extra cords, they use the laptop’s power, and of course, you can still use your existing cell phone.

Cell phone USB kit
Each cell phone has a proprietary port that attachments can connect to. You can get a USB connection kit for pretty much every cell phone model out there, and then you can use a driver to use the cell phone as a modem. An official Verizon USB Mobile Office kit includes the VZaccess software, but you can often find 3rd-party cables for as little as $10. If you use a 3rd-party cable, then you’ll need to locate a USB Windows driver for your cell phone in order to use it as a cell modem. Google is really the only option here.

EV-DO cell phones are beginning to make their appearance, and that can theoretically provide more performance (assuming it works for the same price scheme as NationalAccess.

HowardForums is the best place to start looking for what you need and how it will work with your phone.

First, you will need Bluetooth support in your cell phone. Many of the more expensive and newest phones include Bluetooth support. You’ll also need Bluetooth support on your computer. Because most computers do not come with built-in Bluetooth, you’ll probably need to get a USB Bluetooth adapter for the computer. The cell phone will probably come with a drivers CD that gives your computer the proper drivers to use the cell phone as a cell modem; otherwise, you’ll need to turn to Google.

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  1. Mobile communication continues to be one of our hottest markets. VoIP is growing also and we soon expect cellular technology will go voip, but that’s down the road. The days of the big circuit switches are coming to an end…. Everything today is going the VoIP route. Although there are still hurdles to overcome, packet switching for voice is here to stay. Get in now… You’ll save money as well…


  2. For rural areas without DSL, optical fiber, or cable, this sounds much less expensive to set up than satellite internet, albeit somewhat slower. Is the digital service only in limited areas, or is it available wherever the cell phone signal is excellent?

  3. Greg Palmer says:

    We are exploring cellular uplinks in Kenya, Africa to provide medical data, email, and video if possible. Any suggestions on equipment and providers in that region would be greatly appreciated.

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