How to find broadband on the go

Our writer sorts through the options from carriers of high-speed wireless service

Do you find yourself wishing that your Wi-Fi connection would be faster or more pervasive when you are on the road? Are you frustrated with the BlackBerry's keyboard and long for your laptop?

Then it might be time to consider one of the high-speed data plans from one of the major carriers of cell phone service. However, good luck trying to get information to make a rational decision -- the carriers have made information about these services hard to come by.

I have been saying for a long time that data is still a four-letter word for the carriers, and that they treat people who want a data plan as third- or even fourth-class citizens. Many of the data plans require you to also have a voice plan or are $20 cheaper a month if you have a voice plan. Some require two-year contracts, just like the voice plans, to get the best rates on the plans and equipment. And the major carrier Web sites are a maze with many dead ends.

Not to worry. I am here to help and will be your humble guide.

First, let's lay out the landscape. There are three major high-speed wireless data services spread across the four major cell carriers, as the table below illustrates:

High-speed cell data technologies compared
Technology Effective throughput up/down Metro areas covered Carriers
Evolution Data Optimized Rev. O (EV-DO)

75Kbit/sec. 500 Kbit/

sec.
181 metro areas for Verizon; 220 for Sprint Verizon, Sprint

Evolution Data Optimized Rev. A

(EV-DO)

350 Kbit/sec./

600Kbit/

sec.
60 metro areas Sprint
Enhanced Data for Global Evolution (EDGE) 75 Kbit/sec./ 135 Kbit/sec.

Cingular, nationwide

T-Mobile: NA
Cingular, T-Mobile

High-

Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA)
300 Kbit/sec. /500 Kbit/sec. 87 metro areas Cingular Broadband Connect

Actually, there is another service that's offered by Verizon Wireless called National Access. But it isn't really high-speed; it's more like somewhat-higher-than-dial-up speed. This may be good enough for you, but it didn't meet our needs in this quest, so we'll leave them out of the discussion.

You'll also notice that Cingular Wireless LLC has two different services, and we'll explain the difference when we talk about the products that support both. And just because Verizon and Sprint Nextel Corp. share EV-DO service, it doesn't mean that all EV-DO products can be used on both company's networks. Au contraire. If you buy a laptop with a Verizon EV-DO modem, it can't be used on Sprint's network, and vice versa. The same goes for EDGE products, too. For now, you are best off buying any modems from the carriers whose services you will end up using.

Verizon has the widest laptop support -- meaning that you can buy a laptop with one of their modems built in. Until recently, they also had the best coverage nationwide, but Sprint has been catching up and putting up new towers and now claims that its service is more widely available, at least when it comes to its support for the original Rev. 0 EV-DO network.

Cingular has the most confusing set of plans across its two services, and it seemed that there was a new plan option every time I checked Cingular's Web site.

T-Mobile USA Inc. made a name for itself as being the carrier of choice for Starbucks Wi-Fi, but it has been less forthcoming for broadband coverage and support.

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