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All tablet devices absolutely must support some Wi-Fi protocols.

In addition to simply connecting to a Wi-Fi network, there are other connectivity considerations to extend the functionality of your tablet device.

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A Buying Guide to iPad and other Tablet Devices :  Part 7

Wireless Data Connectivity Choices and Costs

Finding free Wi-Fi is a bit like the police.  There's never one when you want one, but they also appear in the most unexpected places.



Did you know that there are currently four main 'flavors' of Wi-Fi?  The more types of Wi-Fi connectivity your tablet supports, the more use you'll get from it.

If you really need more access to the internet in more places than that provided by Wi-Fi, you'll need to consider the minefield of 3G data networking choices open to you - confusing in terms of cost, inclusion, coverage, and contract.

There are some other connectivity issues we consider below as well that will help you to get still more use out of your tablet.

Data Connectivity

We are increasingly living in a world that was a science fiction dream only ten years ago.  We are - and we expect to be - connected to an increasingly omniscient internet for more and more of our lives, and we are increasingly reliant on that connection.

It is hard to think of much we can use a computer for these days that doesn't require or at least benefit from the internet.  Even 'traditional' computing tasks such as word processing and spreadsheets are increasingly being done through 'the cloud' of the internet, and/or with their results being stored in the cloud.

And so it is an essential measure of the value and use/convenience of a tablet that it be as connected to the internet as possible.


It is reasonable to expect all tablets to have at least some Wi-Fi connection capabilities - with the most basic being 802.11b.  If the tablet also has 802.11g, that is better, and if it has 802.11n, that is better still; with 802.11a probably being the least valuable of the four main Wi-Fi standards (and the least commonly found in the typical Wi-Fi networks you'll be trying to connect to).

Unfortunately, Wi-Fi is not a mobile technology, and finding free Wi-Fi (or even pay Wi-Fi) is a haphazard thing - it probably exists at home and at work, but probably does not exist in many other places you frequent.

3G Data

And so some tablets also offer 3G data connectivity over one of the wireless carriers' cellphone data services.  In the near future, we will probably see tablets supporting the newer and still relatively scarce 4G data services too.

Do you really need the extra connectivity offered by access to a 3G data service?  This is something to carefully debate with yourself, because there will probably be significant extra costs involved if you do choose a 3G data capable device.

Although the tablet itself might be subsidized by a wireless carrier, much as they do with phone handsets now, if that is the case, you can be certain that the downside to that will be a one or two year contract committing you to a monthly spend of who knows how much a month.

And if the tablet itself is not subsidized (as is the case with the iPad) you'll probably pay more for its 3G capability (an extra $130 for the iPad) and then of course you'll pay still more for the data you send and receive via 3G (a minimum charge of $15 for 250MB of data to be used within 30 days).

Our own feeling is that you can probably manage without 3G connectivity.  The chances are you also have a smart phone that probably does have 3G connectivity, so in an 'emergency' where you must access the internet away from Wi-Fi, you can do so via your phone rather than your tablet.

Furthermore, some Android based phones will re-broadcast their 3G data connection as a Wi-Fi connection, so you could connect to the internet through the Wi-Fi signal from your phone.

Which leads to an interesting additional connection capability.  Tethering.  But first, there's one more issue associated with 3G data access.

3G Compatibility and Lock Issues

Here are two potential problems.  In short, different wireless companies use both different types of 3G data transmission and different frequencies.

To explain by analogy, think of the difference between AM and FM radio.  A FM radio will never pick up AM, and vice versa.  And think of the difference between a radio station at one frequency and another at a different frequency - if you've no way of 'turning the dial' on your radio, you'll never be able to hear the second station.

It is the same with 3G data.  Some wireless companies use one type of data service (eg Verizon), others use a different type (eg AT&T, T-mobile, most of the rest of the world).

But even within one service type, there are different frequencies - in the US, T-mobile and AT&T use a compatible type of service, but different/incompatible frequencies, and other wireless companies elsewhere in the world might use the same frequencies as AT&T and/or different frequencies again.

The iPhone 4 ends up supporting UMTS, HSDPA and HSUPA services, and four different frequency bands - 850, 900, 1900 and 2100 MHz.  The iPad supports UMTS and HSDPA, and three different frequency bands - 850, 1900 and 2100 MHz.  Other phones and tablets may/will support still different frequency bands, and if you want your tablet to work with more wireless providers than the one you first sign up for service with, you'll want to carefully identify which frequencies and protocols the unit supports and which you will need.

There's one more issue as well.  If you are buying a tablet that has been discounted in price by a wireless company in return for the requirement that you buy a one or two year contract with that wireless company, you might well find that the tablet is 'locked' and will only work with that provider - even once the contract period has expired.

You need to understand if the unit is locked or not, and if it is, what the policies are by the wireless company for unlocking it.  Some will unlock the device after perhaps three months of your account being in good standing, others might after the contract has expired, and others might never unlock it.

Tethering and Rebroadcasting

Tethering is the process of connecting to the internet through an intermediary device.  If you can remember back to the 'good old days' of modems, you could sort of say that a computer was tethered to the modem.

There are two ways tethering might apply to a tablet.  One is having the tablet as the tetherer, and the other is using it as the tetheree.  In other words, maybe you connect to the internet somehow (Wi-Fi or 3G) via the tablet, and then other devices can 'share' the tablet's connection, either via a cable (hence the concept of tethering) or wirelessly via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

The opposite might also apply - some other device might be able to share its internet connection with the tablet, again via a cable, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

This can be particularly useful if you are at a hotel which charges you an internet access fee for each and every different device you have that wishes to use the internet.  Worst case scenario could be you and your partner traveling together, and you each have a laptop, a phone, a tablet, and maybe an eBook reader too.  That is eight devices in total, and potentially eight daily charges each day.  If one of the devices can rebroadcast its connection as a Wi-Fi signal, probably all the other devices will be able to share the rebroadcast Wi-Fi.

Next best case would be if one of the devices could share its connection over a cable - that wouldn't allow all eight devices to be connected simultaneously, and spread out all around the hotel room, but at least it might allow one or two more devices to be simultaneously connected.

Other Internet Connectivity

Not everywhere has Wi-Fi, and you quite probably will choose not to enable any 3G data service that might be available with the tablet.  For example, many hotel rooms only have a wired ethernet cable type internet connection.

What do you do if you're somewhere that only has wired internet rather than wireless internet.  It is very rare to find a tablet device that has an ethernet port, so you either have to live with the lack of connectivity or find another way to get some Wi-Fi.

For example, you could consider traveling with a small travel router that will take the ethernet access and rebroadcast it as a Wi-Fi signal.  If your tablet has a USB support and is based on Windows 7, it might support something such as the Wi-Fire directional antenna to give your tablet more Wi-Fi range, which might help it sniff out an open Wi-Fi network somewhere.

More ideas can be found in our series on sharing internet access.

Part of a multi part Buyers Guide to iPad/tablet devices.  Please visit the other parts of this series - links at the top right.

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Originally published 30 Sep 2010, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

Related Articles
iPad and Tablet Buying Guide 1 - Basic Issues
2 - Screen Issues
3 - Operating System & Applications
4 - Battery Life and Extensions
5 - Audio & video - recording, storing and replaying
6 - GPS and other LBS type sensors
7 - Data Connectivity, Wi-Fi and 3G
8 - Online and offline memory/storage, CPU
9 - Everything else
Bonus :  Excel Spreadsheet

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