Hookups That Let You Violate Service Terms Anywhere

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, December 17, 2006

Nobody laughs at the idea of replacing a land-line phone with a cellphone, so why should the idea of ditching a ground-bound broadband Internet connection in favor of a high-speed data service from your cellphone provider seem ridiculous?

It shouldn't -- at least if you only look at the technology involved.

The wireless carriers' data services once struggled to keep up with dial-up modems, but Cingular, Sprint and Verizon now sell connections that run as fast as many consumer broadband offerings.

Unlike DSL, cable or satellite-based access, these wireless services aren't nailed down to your home. You can take your hookup with you, logging on from anywhere a carrier's data signal reaches.

Monthly fees of $60 or $80 for unlimited use, twice as much as most cable or DSL costs, reflect that added utility but can seem high to consumers who pay closer to $30 or $40 for a high-speed home connection. Then again, if your only high-speed option so far has been a satellite link, wireless broadband might save you a few bucks.

But there's still a catch: Only one of the three wireless providers -- Sprint-- actually lets you employ your Internet connection as you wish. The other two impose a variety of arbitrary rules that can get your access yanked in a hurry.

The connections run on different wireless technologies -- Cingular uses one called HSDPA while the others employ another named EV-DO -- but they all offer the same promise: a fast, nearly instant connection.

They tend to be a bit slower than many cable or DSL accounts, but are still eminently usable and far more portable than a home connection or even WiFi at the corner coffee shop.

Locally, Verizon's BroadbandAccess has the best coverage, serving the vast majority of the Washington area; Sprint's Mobile Broadband coverage map isn't much less extensive than Verizon's, while Cingular's 3G suffers larger gaps in rural areas. Still, all three already reach many neighborhoods where only one or no kinds of land-based broadband have been available until now.

These companies also provide the same coverage in many other cities across the country.

As for the other two nationwide wireless carriers: Nextel won't add a broadband service, while T-Mobile plans to launch its own over the next two years.

Cingular and Verizon charge $80 a month for unmetered use, while Sprint charges $60. Connecting to all three requires either plugging a PC Card into a laptop -- usually, a $50 purchase -- or buying a phone that can be "tethered" to a computer via a USB cable or Bluetooth wireless. (If you only need data service, not voice calling, and don't own a laptop, only Sprint sells a receiver that plugs into a computer's USB port.)

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