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It's tempting to consider using your mobile broadband or cellular internet for all your connectivity needs. Unfortunately there are issues.

I do not believe that I need both an internet service at my house and a cellphone data service for on the road. When I am not at home, my computer and internet sit idle. I would like to explore an iPhone option. However, it is very costly to have both a service for a cellphone data plan and an internet plan at home. Can I hook my laptop to a cellphone data plan and get rid of home internet? what is your advice?

My advice is to be careful and read the fine print.

While what you're proposing sounds lucrative, and may indeed be appropriate for some people, there are a few drawbacks you should consider before taking the plunge into cellular-only internet.

Data Plan Limitations: Data Caps

Read your data plan terms of service very carefully. You'll often find that there are limitations.

The most obvious limitation is typically the amount of data that you're allowed to use each month. Depending on your carrier and the plan you sign up for there may be reasonable, or perhaps hefty surcharges for going over your allotment.

Don't assume that 'unlimited' means unlimited. Frustrating as it is, unlimited plans often still have a limitation on the amount of data you can transfer each month. Read the agreement carefully; there are very few truly unlimited plans any more.

Data Plan Limitations: Types of Usage

What most people don't realize is that data plan terms of service also often include verbiage that restricts the types of things you're allowed to do with your connection.

A couple of examples you might expect: no sending spam, no running peer-to-peer file servers, and so on. Basically anything that's illegal or would use an excessive amount of bandwidth or system capacity.

Fair enough.

Some plans explicitly restrict something else.

Some plans will state that you cannot use them "as a substitute or backup for private lines".

In other words the explicitly restrict exactly what you're proposing.

Location Limitations

I'll assume you've checked this out already, but make sure that your home actually has cellular coverage and that the data connection works and is reliable in those places where you plan to use your laptop.

I know that in my own home cellular coverage is spotty, for various reasons. If I were to want to rely on a cellular data plan as my primary connection, I'd come up with some way to get a better signal and connection.

Speed Limitations

Most cellular plans will sell you based on their maximum data rate. For most 3G plans that is often branded as a "DSL equivalent" or around 1.5 megabits per second (sometimes more depending on the carrier).

In practice the speeds are often slower, and depend heavily on the previous point: the quality of the connection to the nearest cell tower.

When using cellular modems from different providers I have seen 1.4mbs, but more commonly my speeds are under 1mbs and occasionally even half that.

The upshot? Your home connection most likely provides you with a more consistent speed than a cellular based equivalent might. Again, it all depends on the carrier and the quality of the connection.

WiMax: One Alternative

WiMax is a similar wireless technology explicitly designed for wireless broadband in the home. Some include as part of their data plan an actual USB modem for access to their service while traveling that also falls back to a more widely deployed cellular network when you leave the WiMax service area.

Google "wimax providers" to get started.

Be sure and do your research as well. While the technology may be cool, make sure to once again read the terms of service carefully, and check in on things like support forums and other reviews of the service you're considering. You're selecting a new ISP, and customer support will be just as important as the technology itself.

Article C4674 - December 8, 2010 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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3 Comments
Bob
December 9, 2010 12:52 AM

I'm in the UK. When I moved house, I made the decision NOT to continue having a land-line, as the family all have moblies anyway. I use one of 3's internet broadband dongles.
The speed is 'good enough' (I'm not expecting to watch full streaming video) and it's cheap - but the data limit is a bit tight for my use at 5Gb / month.

Kara
December 14, 2010 8:35 AM

When my satellite ISP went out last summer, I tethered my BlackBerry to my laptop for about 2 weeks until the part came in to fix the dish. It worked pretty well as an emergency, but I had to sit in certain spot in the house to get coverage (my BB wasn't 3G btw), and I had to "dial in" every time, just like a dialup modem. It wasn't a viable long-term option for me. I don't think iPhones offer tethering as an option, but I could be wrong - it may have changed. I now have DSL and it's still the best option for my heavy usage.

Sowri Rajan
December 15, 2010 12:00 AM

You are absolutely right about how careful one needs to be before choosing the ISP. Unlimited download has too many strings attached and the customer should carefully go through the documents before signing one. In a country like UAE, where there are many restrictions, one should be doubly careful.

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