Article by Kevin Savetz

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Copyright © by Kevin Savetz


For most people, access to the Internet is becoming as routine, and as nec-essary, as access to the telephone. You might log in with a modem at home or have a speedy connection at work, but one way or another, it's likely that you can sit down at a computer to check your email and search the Web.

When you're elsewhere, however, getting an Internet connection can be trickier. Whether you're on vacation, a business trip, or just across town, being away from your desktop PC doesn't mean you have to be disconnected from the 'Net.

In fact, there are more ways than ever to get online when you're on the go. We'll look at options for getting connected when you're away from home or on the road.

Internet access requires two things: some sort of hardware and the Internet connection itself. The hardware could be a notebook computer, a PDA (personal digital assistant), or a mobile phone. The Internet connection can come in many forms, including a modem, wireless access, Ethernet, or the cellular phone network. You can mix and match hardware and connection types: You can have a notebook with cellular access or a PDA with wireless access, for example. The right combination depends on your needs and budget and how you need to access the Internet.

Notebook Or PDA? The hardware you take on the road is an essential part of the equation. Notebook computers and PDAs are the most popular choices for on-the-go Internet access.

PDAs are smaller, lighter, and less expensive than notebooks. They can work wonderfully for accessing email and the Web when you're away from home, and with the right software, you can use your PDA for other Internet functions, such as accessing your office's network. The Internet access won't be quite the same as on your desktop computer because the Web browser and email client may not have all the features that you're used to, and the PDA's small screen and keyboard can slow you down. Aside from Internet access, a PDA can offer some other features similar to a notebook: spreadsheets, games, and appointment scheduling, for instance. But it's not a full-fledged computer; you can't watch a DVD, burn a CD, or play The Sims on a PDA.

PDAs with some form of Internet access (typically wireless or cellular) cost any- where from $200 to $700. You may need to add peripherals, such as a Wi-Fi access card or keyboard.

A notebook computer, on the other hand, can offer the same Internet experience as a desktop PC: You can run your favorite Web browser and email program, and you can use other Internet applications, such as a VPN (virtual private network) client to access your office network. You can compose email and word processor documents on a real keyboard. For Internet access, notebooks are quite versatile because you can use a modem, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and cellular access. Plus, a notebook can provide plenty of other tools and toys to entertain you when you're traveling that a PDA can't. On the downside, notebooks are bulkier than PDAs and, starting at about $1,000, are much more expensive.

A third option, tablet PCs, are beginning to appear. They're marketed as devices that provide the power of a notebook in a less bulky "tablet" form, with a screen the size and shape of a pad of paper. Some models have keyboards, and some do not. Most include a pen-like stylus for drawing on the screen and handwriting notes.

Despite their unusual shape, tablet PCs are full-featured computers that run Windows applications. For Internet access, they can provide (either built-in or as an option) a modem, Ethernet jack, wireless, and cellular access. But they're not cheap. Tablet PCs typically cost $1,500 to $2,500, as much as a high-end notebook.

Dial-Up Access. The modem is the oldest method of getting online while on the road, and it is still perhaps the most reliable. Unlike Wi-Fi, Ethernet, and cellular access, a modem doesn't require any special features at your destination other than a phone line.

A modem isn't the fastest way to access the Internet, but it is good enough for checking email, browsing the Web, and doing other online chores. Modems are standard equipment in most notebooks and optional equipment for many PDAs. (If yours doesn't have a modem, you can probably add one with an expansion card.)

Carry a standard telephone cable in your travel bag and you'll be one step closer to connecting to the Internet. You will also need an ISP (Internet service provider) to dial into.

If your ISP is a regional company without a local access number where you're traveling, you can simply dial long distance to log in. With some careful configuration, you can have the computer or PDA dial a calling card number first to cut back on the exorbitant long-distance fees that some hotels charge. For quickly downloading email, a long-distance call won't cost much, but for longer online sessions, you need another option.

That option is to use a national ISP that has phone numbers across the country (or perhaps around the world). Popular national ISPs include America Online (http://free.aol.com), AT&T WorldNet (http://download.att.net), Earthlink (http://www.earthlink.com), MSN (http://join.msn.com), and NetZero (http://www.netzero.com).

If you already use a dial-up ISP for access from home, it makes sense to use the same service when you're on the road.

Each ISP has its own pricing plans, but typically you can get unlimited dial-up access for about $20 per month, or a few hours of access for about $10 per month. (If you just need a dial-up account for checking email on the occasional trip, opt for a light usage account.)

Cost isn't the only factor. You'll want to choose an ISP with phone numbers (known in the Internet biz as PoPs [Points of Presence]) in the areas you'll be traveling. Check the ISP's Web site for a list of PoPs. You can save time by getting a list of your ISP's local phone numbers for the places you'll be visiting before you leave. (Find AOL's list of access numbers at http://access.web.aol.com and Earthlink's list at http://support.earthlink.net/support.)

Ethernet. More than ever, hotels and conference halls are providing Internet access by way of Ethernet connections. If your notebook has an Ethernet jack (as most all modern notebooks do), and the place you're visiting has an Ethernet port, you've got a source for fast, inexpensive Internet access. Some hotels charge for access to the Internet using Ethernet, but more often, it's included in the cost of the room. The speed of the connection will vary depending on the venue, but it will typically be much faster than a modem; a speedy, high-quality connection.

All you need to use that Ethernet jack is a CAT-5 (Category 5) cable that connects your PC to the jack. CAT 5 cables are inexpensive (about $5) and very easy to hook up. You can wire CAT 5 cables in two ways: straight-through or crossover. You will need a straight-through cable needed to connect to an Ethernet hub, which you may find in public spaces such as conferences and computer labs. But you may find situations, with some hotel room connections, for instance, where a crossover cable is necessary. It pays to have one of each in your notebook bag so you are ready for either situation. It can't hurt to carry Ethernet cables even if you normally depend on a modem or other Internet access.

Most hotels or conference centers will post information on configuring your notebook to use their connections. Usually, it's simply a matter of setting the Network Control Panel to use DHCP for its connection information, plugging the Ethernet cable into the jack and the notebook, and rebooting the notebook.

Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi is one option for Internet access that has gained tremendous popu- larity in the past year. Wi-Fi, short for wireless fidelity, provides fast, wireless Internet access for notebooks and PDA users. To use it, you need to be in the vicinity of a Wi-Fi hub (or "hotspot"). Many airports, coffee shops, hotels, and conference centers offer Wi-Fi access, either free or for a fee. In addition, people use Wi-Fi for networking their businesses or homes.

Wi-Fi is especially convenient. There are no wires to fuss with and usually few con-figuration issues to worry about. When your notebook or PDA is within a few hundred feet of a hotspot, you'll have access to the Internet for the Web, email, and other online tasks. But wander

Before taking your trip, it's a good idea to find out where the local Wi-Fi hotspots are. You can often find this information online, for instance, the Bay Area Wireless Users Group's Web site (http://www.bawug.org) has a list of free Wi-Fi cafes in San Francisco. You can find a list of free hotspots in New York City is listed on the NYCwireless Web site (http://www.nycwireless.net).(http://www.wififreespot.com) offers lists of free access locations across the country, and WiFinder (http://wifinder.com) serves up lists of free and commercial hotspots around the world.

In order to use Wi-Fi, your notebook or PDA needs a Wi-Fi access card. There are three versions of Wi-Fi, and your access card must be compatible with the Wi-Fi hub you're using. So choosing the right card can be a challenge.

The most popular version is called 802.11b. It has been around the longest and is supported in the most hotspots. Cards that add 802.11b access to your notebook or PDA are inexpensive (often about $30 to $50).

The 802.11g protocol is a new up-and-comer that will eventually replace 802.11b. 802.11g is about five times faster than 802.11b and is backward-compatible with it, making 802.11g the best choice for many people. If your notebook has an 802.11g card but the local hotspot uses 802.11b, your card will "fall back" to the 802.11b protocol. Similarly, if your notebook has an 802.11b card but the hotspot is outfitted with 802.11g, you'll be able to get Internet access, although not at the full speed of 802.11g. The 802.11g cards for notebooks and PDAs typically cost $70 to $100.

A third version of Wi-Fi, 802.11a, is primarily used by private businesses, and not in hotels, airports, and other hotspots that are open to the public. If you'll be accessing the Internet from public places, don't worry about 802.11a. But if you'll need to get online from a business that uses 802.11a, you'll need a compatible card: The 802.11b and 802.11g cards aren't compatible with 802.11a hubs.

If you want to cover all of the bases, you can get a card that handles all three 802.11 protocols. You'll pay more for a card that handles all three protocols, but be assured that you'll have wireless Internet access in the greatest number of situations. Linksys Dual Band A+G Wireless Access Point (http://www.linksys.com), for example, costs $279, quite a bit more than an 802.11b-only card, which are available from many manufacturers for $30 to $50. If you don't need access to a specific 802.11a network, opt for an 802.11g network or, if you're on a tight budget, an 802.11b network.

No matter which protocol you're using, your privacy should be a special concern when you're using a wireless network to access the Internet. Anyone within radio range can intercept information, such as email and Web forms, that you may send wirelessly. Some Wi-Fi cards automatically encrypt the information you send, keeping it away from prying eyes. Others don't. If you're not using an encrypted Wi-Fi connection, remember that anyone could read the email you send and receive.

Other Wireless Options. If you want access on the go from anywhere within your city, and you're lucky enough to live in a supported city, you may have another option. Wireless access providers, such as Ricochet (http://www.ricochet.com) and Prairie iNet (http://www.prairieinet.net), provide high-speed access from anywhere in the cities they serve. However, Ricochet, which is perhaps the best-known service in this category, currently only supports two cities: San Diego and Denver. Prairie iNet supports communities in Iowa and Illinois. The services use a special wireless modem (incompatible with Wi-Fi modems) that connects to your notebook or PDA. Ricochet costs $29.95 per month for unlimited use. But if you wander outside of a served city, that modem won't work anywhere else.

This sort of service is a good option for computer users who spend a lot of time moving around one city, but these city-wide wireless services are few and far between.

. . . Or Mobile Phone? For the smallest possible Internet access device, forget about PDAs and notebooks. Instead, look to the latest generation of mobile phones. These tiny Internet terminals fit in a pocket and don't require a keyboard or other bulky accessories (except perhaps a battery charger). But their size may be a disad- vantage, too, because filling out Web forms and composing email using a telephone keypad can be a slow and laborious task. The mobile phone's display often features color and graphics, like a desktop PC, but it is much, much smaller.

Another advantage of using a mobile phone to access the Internet is that you're completely untethered. You don't have to be near a phone line or Ethernet jack, nor do you have to be within the relatively short reach of a Wi-Fi network. As long as you're in an area that your provider's digital cellular service covers, you'll be able to access email and the Web.

The speed of digital cellular Internet connections usually tops out at be- tween 40Kbps (kilobits per second) to 70Kbps, about the speed of a standard modem. Web access isn't perfect, because sites with Java, frames, and unusual formatting may not display correctly or at all. Cellular access can be a good choice for people who do a lot of traveling, but the access may be a little more expensive compared to other methods of Internet access.

To get started with mobile phone Internet access, you'll need a compatible phone, which can cost anywhere from $150 to $400. However, you may be able to get a discount on the phone when you sign a mobile service contract, which you'll also need.

Sprint PCS (http://www.sprintpcs.com) "Free & Clear with Vision" service starts at $50 per month, which includes unlimited access to Web and email in addition to voice telephone service. The "PCS Vision Professional Pack" lets you access your Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes company email, calendar, and contacts using your phone.

A less-expensive option is a data service that provides WAP (Wireless Application Protocol, also known as "web clipping") instead of full-fledged Web access. These text-based services don't offer pretty color graphics or blazing speed, but they can be an affordable way for you to get information from the road. One WAP option is Verizon Mobile Web (http://www.verizonwireless.com/mobileweb), which costs $6.95 to $12.95 per month, and it works with mobile phones that cost less than $100. At 14.4 Kbps, the service is relatively slow, but it provides access to ABC News, MapQuest, E*Trade, Amazon.com, and many other WAP-enabled sites.

Some PDAs are compatible with digital cellular service, providing a larger screen and better keyboard than a mobile phone. For instance, the Handspring Treo 300 (http://www.handspring.com) works with the Sprint PCS Vision service, and the Audiovox Thera Pocket PC (http://www.audiovox.com) works with Verizon Express Network.

Before you sign up with a cellular service provider, make sure digital phone service is available in your area. Sprint PCS is available in major cities from coast to coast, but it isn't available everywhere. Although the phone may work for voice calls when you're "roaming" outside of an officially supported area, Web and email access will not. WAP services, such as Verizon Mobile Web, generally work wherever digital cellular service is available.

Cellular Access Using A Notebook Or PDA. You can also make digital cellular service work with your notebook computer or PDA. Like mobile phone access, you can access the Internet using a cellular network, but with the cellular service, you'll have a larger screen and a better keyboard to work with, as well as access to the Internet software you're already familiar with.

A wireless modem is the gadget that adds cellular communication to your notebook or PDA; no phone is required. Wireless modems usually cost in the range of $200 to $300. But this setup gives up one of the major advantages of cellular service: the telephone.

If you already have a mobile phone, you may be able to use it as your wireless modem. Special cables are available for some phones that connect the phone to the PC, using the phone's antenna to communicate with the cellular network.

Cellular access using a notebook typically runs at 40Kbps to 70Kbps, about the speed of a modem. If you're used to faster access (via a cable modem or the office LAN [local-area network]), your notebook can seem slower. Unlike a mobile phone, which is optimized for sending short messages, your PC can perform bandwidth-intensive activities that can slow to a crawl over the cellular network, which isn't built for that.

Your mobile service provider may have a separate pricing plan for access via your notebook. Sprint's "PCS Vision for Notebooks and PDAs" service costs a flat rate of $100 per month for 300MB of data transfer, or $120 for unlimited use. Verizon's Express Network service (http://www.verizon wireless.com/express_network) is another option. Price plans include $35 per month for 150 minutes of Internet access and $79.99 a month for unlimited access. Verizon Express Network is accessible in about 400 cities in 35 states.

Which Is The Best Choice? Ultimately, the best choice for Internet access on the go depends on your own needs and budget.

If portability is a primary concern, a PDA (perhaps outfitted with a add-on keyboard) may be your best choice. If you need the full-blown functionality of a computer and don't mind lugging a few more pounds around, a notebook computer is the better alternative. If you only need occasional Internet access during your trip, perhaps you can get along without taking any hardware at all.

A mobile phone can provide Internet access in areas where the other methods can't reach, but the small screen and other limitations of the phone may be a deal-breaker. Cellular access on a notebook is for die-hard users. It provides the flexibility of cellular access with the larger screen and keyboard of your notebook, but the service fees can make it the most expensive option.

It makes sense to cover your bases, bringing along the cables and hardware to use whatever Internet access you happen to find on the road. If your notebook or PDA has an Ethernet jack, bring Ethernet cables along. If it has a built-in modem (and you have an account with a dial-up ISP), you'll want to bring a telephone cable. If it has an expansion slot that will work with a Wi-Fi card, get one, even if it's the cheapest 802.11b card you can find. These three tools will ensure you can get Internet access in the greatest variety of situations.

With so many choices available, chances are Internet access will not be far away, no matter where you are headed.

Sidebar: The No Hardware Option

Another option for using the Internet on the go is to leave the hardware behind. The benefits are obvious. You won't have to buy expensive gadgetry or Internet service plans, you don't have to lug any hardware around, and you can't accidentally leave it in a taxi.

The no-hardware option means you'll have to find Internet access wherever you go. That's usually not too difficult. Your hotel or conference center may provide a computer lab with Internet access. You can find computers with Internet connections in cyber cafes, airports, and other public places for a few dollars an hour. Public libraries are another fine option, often providing Internet access for free.

If you'll need more reliable access to a computer during your trip but don't want to invest in a notebook of your own, you can rent one. Many firms provide rental computers, so you can have one waiting at your hotel and return it before you head back home. A four-day rental of a Pentium 4 notebook costs about $200 at Laptoprent.com (http://www.laptoprent.com), which includes the cost of delivery and return shipping. At RentQuick.com (http://www.rentquick.com), notebook rental is $49 to $59 per day, plus shipping charges. Just make sure the notebook you get includes the right hardware, such as a modem or Ethernet jack, for the Internet access you'll need.

Sidebar: Computer Insurance

Whenever you take expensive computer equipment along on your travels, you're potentially putting that hardware in harm's way. An insurance policy for your computer equipment can protect you in case disaster strikes.

According to Safeware (http://www.safeware.com), an insurance agency dedicated to computer equipment, the leading cause of insurance claims is accidental damage to computers, followed by theft of the device. Both of these events are much more likely to befall a portable computer than one that sits quietly on a desk.

Insurance on $3,000 worth of equipment (including a notebook, PDA (personal digital assistant), and digital camera) costs about $180 per year at Safeware, or slightly more if you travel outside the United States.

With computer insurance, the devil is in the details. Before choosing a policy, know what the deductible is and understand what kinds of losses are not covered. Some policies don't cover loss due to earthquake or theft from an unattended vehicle, for instance.

Reprinted with permission from Smart Computing magazine.


Articles by Kevin Savetz