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Which 3g Network Is Best

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Review: Which 3G network is the best?

Brian Nadel

May 13, 2008 (Computerworld) We all pack appropriate clothing when we leave for a business trip, but most mobile users will still feel naked if they don't have easy, fast access to the Internet.

Sure, you can stop at a Wi-Fi hot spot or catch up at the hotel at night, but what do you do the rest of the time? Enter cellular providers that offer 3G data service over their networks at broadband-like speeds.

Third-generation wireless technology, or 3G, started being rolled out in about 2001, and offers a wide range of services (from music downloads to mobile GPS) and greater efficiency than previous standards. In the U.S., three providers offer 3G service: AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint. The fourth nationwide carrier, T-Mobile, says it will roll out its 3G network starting later this year.

Although 3G can be accessed using many cell phones, road warriors who need to get serious work done will likely want to use their laptops. To that end, more notebook makers are offering optional built-in cellular data network connections. For those of us who aren't ready to purchase a computer with that capability, there are numerous plug-in radio modems that can offer the connection.

To test these capabilities, I got hold of cellular network cards from AT&T, Sprint and Verizon, and used them with a Lenovo ThinkPad X300 notebook. I watched videos on commuter trains, worked with e-mail at cafes, listened to Internet radio at the airport and downloaded large files while in a car.

How we tested

To gauge the speed and reliability of these three wireless data networks, I used my ThinkPad X300 to collect nearly 500 data points at eight different places in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, within a 50-mile radius of midtown Manhattan's urban canyons.

I timed how long it took to establish a connection with each network, followed by speed tests. Using Alken's bandwidth meter, I was able to gauge download and upload speeds as well as how long it took to load that vendor's home page. Finally, I ran an Internet radio station and timed how long it took to drain the battery. I then compared it to running the battery down using the notebook's Wi-Fi radio.

All speed readings -- connection time, the Alken speed tests and page loading times -- were repeated five times and averaged.

AT&T LaptopConnect

AT&T's LaptopConnect data network has definite appeal for those who live on the road. It not only delivered the fastest test speeds over its High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA) network, but AT&T gives you the card for free -- if you commit to a two-year contract.

The carrier offers the choice of four connection cards; I tested Sierra Wireless' USBConnect 881 USB card. The 881 card is tiltable, has a 380 milliamp/hour built-in battery and an external antenna jack (although AT&T doesn't sell an antenna for it). It weighs two ounces and slips easily into a notebook bag pocket, but when inserted in my test laptop, it blocked a nearby USB port.

The card automatically loads the needed software the first time you connect it to your laptop. AT&T's Connection Manager (ACM) software has an online timer, and shows the network's signal strength bars and how much data has moved into and out of the computer.

Sierra Wireless USBConnect 881

You also can use it to control the notebook's Wi-Fi connection, although its interface lacks the real-time "fever" graphs showing connection speed that the VZ Access Manager shows. It is also missing the GPS abilities of Sprint's system.

In tests, AT&T's network left its competitors in the digital dust, with average download speeds of 755Kbit/sec. and average upload speeds of 484Kbit/sec. The peak download speed was 1.6Mbit/sec. It connected in just 3.0 seconds and loaded the test Web page in 0.228 seconds. On the downside, the cellular modem ate up 40 minutes of battery time, midway between Sprint's hour and Verizon's 20 minutes.

AT&T LaptopConnect

• Card: Sierra Wireless USBConnect 881

• Price for card: Free after rebate

• Top cellular data service plan: 5GB per month for $60

• Coverage Map

AT&T has five DataConnect plans that start with the $20 entry-level plan, which includes 5MB of uploaded and downloaded data per month (extra megabytes are a whopping $8 each). The top-of-the-line plan is the 5GB plan that costs $60. If you go over that limit for two consecutive months, the company doesn't charge for it, but a representative will contact you about ways to cut your use. Failing that, AT&T "will work to terminate the contract," according to a company representative. He added that this outcome was very rare. Without a two-year contract, the 5GB plan costs $80.

AT&T concentrates its data network in the country's top 270 markets and plans to add 80 more by year's end, but falls back to its older data network in some areas. According to the company, a large majority of covered markets use the latest HSPA technology.

AT&T might not offer the best laptop interface or GPS, but AT&T's LaptopConnect gets you online with the fastest connection available.

Sprint Mobile Broadband

Based on Revision A of the Evolution-Data Optimized (EV-DO) protocol, Sprint's Mobile Broadband network is available in most U.S. cities. The network delivers reasonable but not blazing connection speeds.

Although Sprint offers five different data cards, I chose the $100 Novatel Wireless Ovation U727. At 1.1 ounces, it's not only half the size of the other cards but also includes a micro-SD flash card slot for saving data. The card, with its a fold-out antenna extended, sticks out three inches from the notebook but didn't interfere with adjacent USB outlets on my laptop.

Sprint's Mobile Broadband connection interface has about the same functionality as AT&T's ACM, but lacks the connection speed fever graphs of the Verizon's VZ Access Manager. It shows the network's signal strength



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