March 23, 2003
By Craig Plunkett
The connection choices available for media professionals boil down to two: Always connected, but slow and expensive, or spotty coverage, but cheap and fast. The former is wireless Wide Area Networking (WAN), offered by the major cell carriers. The latter is Wi-Fi, provided by a mix of entities. Here, we’ll take a short trip through the different options based on your needs and devices.
The first thing to ask yourself is “How connected to my data do I need to be”? If you need to always get or send your email or surf the web wherever you are, then you’re looking at a solution from one of the large cell carriers, either connecting your laptop through a cell phone or using a handheld device like a RIM Blackberry or integrated PDA/Phone like the Handspring Treo and Kyocera Smartphone.
The laptop to cell phone connection will be slow and expensive, chewing up tons of cell minutes, and only offering 9,600 bits/second speed, but it will work wherever you have cell coverage. The handheld solution is a much more convenient device to use, with that same cell coverage but its screen size and ability to manipulate data is more limited than a laptop. If you need to edit files or otherwise manipulate data on the road, then you’re in need of a laptop with some kind of connectivity choice.
The next best solution, coverage wise, is to go with a so-called 2.5 G solution from a large cell carrier, where you insert a data-only cell phone on a PC Card into your laptop. The coverage areas on these technologies are not as widespread as the voice cell coverage, and the speeds are about the same as a good dialup internet connection on average. The PC cards you need to use with these are also expensive, around $300.00, and an unlimited time plan is $100.00/month. This would work for the person that needs to do a moderate amount of data manipulation and has budget to burn.
The fastest, least expensive option is Wi-Fi. This is the only game in town if you’re pushing large amounts of data, like graphics and video. You use a $50.00 card in your laptop, or a more expensive one for your PDA, the same kind that you can use with your cable modem or DSL line plus wireless Access Point (AP) at home. Wi-Fi is like a cordless phone for your laptop, with the handset being the card in your laptop, and the base station being your AP. Once you move your handset away from your base station, your phone no longer works until you get close to another station. Plus, your AP needs to be connected to your home internet connection.
Public Wi-Fi is like a collection of base stations (called hotspots) in various venues that allow you to use your Wi-Fi card like an internet pay phone, and you can pay a variety of prices for a variety of plans, or pay as you go. The speed is generally the same as you’d get from a cable modem or DSL line. The big downside of Wi-Fi right now, is its availability. As of March 2003, there are only about 2 to 4 thousand places to use this technology in the US, but it is exploding globally. Most locations are in airports and large cities on the coasts. Hotels and Starbucks are your next most likely locations.
The next issue is roaming, sort of. As you move from hotspot to hotspot, you may have to pay at each different place, if the hotspots are not on the same networks. If you’re a national traveler, the best bets if you were going to sign up for a monthly plan would be to go with either Boingo or T-Mobile. They have the largest footprints right now. Boingo charges $49.95 for its monthly plan, with access in a variety of locations, and T-Mobile charges $29.95 for its monthly plan, but you can only use it in Starbucks locations in major cities so far. Boingo makes deals with other network providers like CEDX, Café.com, Wise Technologies, and Wayport so that Boingo users can use the capacity of those networks, like the “B” carrier on a cell phone network. If you run around a single city, there are lots of local providers like CEDX in New York, that offer more attractive plans, in more varied venues. Wi-Fi isn’t ubiquitous yet, so if you want to locate a place to use it, you’ll have to turn to one of the directories of sites that are popping up on the web. The most popular is Wifinder.com. They list hotspots from all providers worldwide.
A final word about security. In all cases, anytime you connect a computer to a network, either wired or wireless, cable, DSL or Wi-Fi, its inherently unsecure and untrusted. As a matter of good practices, if you’re transmitting information you want to keep private, it should be encrypted before it leaves your computer and goes over the network. That way, people may be able to hear it, but it will be scrambled, and hard to decipher. Various techniques and tools can be used to do this, from using SSL based websites, to sophisticated Virtual Private Network (VPN) technologies and other custom solutions. CEDX provides a secure collaboration tool to share files among a group of folks, and to access your home or office computer’s Outlook email. You should also use a personal firewall type piece of software, like BlackIce, or McAfee to protect your computer from breakins, regardless of what kind of network you use.
Craig Plunkett shared his expertise at our March meeting “Gizmos, Gadgets and Wi-fi”. For more information on CEDX services in your area, check out www.cedx.com or contact Craig Plunkett via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.