Connecting to the Internet
How to get online when traveling
If only access to the
internet was as clearly signposted as this would suggest!
This article helps you
evaluate your different access alternatives so that you can
decide how best to access the internet when you're away from
your main connection.
The good news is that you have
many different ways to reach the internet when you're away from
your regular internet connection.
The bad news is the same - you
have a confusing variety of choices. In this series, we
look at the issues surrounding each option, so that you can
better understand the choices open to you and better select that
suited for your needs.
There are several factors to
consider when evaluating different internet connection methods.
What do you need internet
connectivity for? Is it to remain linked into your office
network? Or is it to stay in the email loop? Do you
need full access to all internet services, or is limited access
to only basic internet services all you need?
Initial Set Up Costs
Just about every method of
connecting to the internet requires you to buy some special
hardware and/or software. The cost of this can range in
price from only a few dollars to many hundreds of dollars.
How much does it actually
cost to access the internet, and is the charge a :
Flat fee per month with no
limits on usage
Based on data transferred
Based on time connected
Some combination of two or
three of the above factors
A special word of caution if
you're looking at plans that charge for data transfer.
These services often express their costs in harmless looking
terms - only a few cents per kB of data transferred. But
even 2c per kB becomes $20 per MB, and if you're doing much web
surfing, or receiving emails with attachments, this may become
Note also that some types of
service have different rates if you also subscribe to the
company's other services. This is most commonly the case
with cell phone providers, that sometimes offer an 'add on'
internet connectivity service to existing account holders that
is much less than buying a standalone connectivity service
without also having a regular cell phone account.
Will you be able to use your
connection method when and where you want to? Obviously
this is one of the most important considerations when you're
choosing the service option that is best suited for your needs.
Probably most of your
traveling will be done either within your own region or within
your own country, but sometimes you might also need to find a
way to connect when in a different country. In such cases,
totally different cost factors and other considerations may
Different methods of
connecting to the internet offering a range of speeds, with top
speeds being as much as 50 times faster than the bottom of the
Particularly when you are
traveling, you might find that you have less time to wait for
large files to download, and maybe speed is even more important
to you. On the other hand, if you're only using the
internet to download a limited number of short emails, then
speed is not so necessary.
Some methods of connecting
only work with PCs, not with Macs. And some methods of
connecting won't allow you to establish a VPN connection with
your office network.
If you have specific
programs or unusual hardware, make sure that they will work with
your choice of connectivity methods.
Some types of internet
connection require special hardware, or only work on special
types of devices.
Internet Connection Options
You have seven main ways to
get on the internet. each with strengths and weaknesses
Evaluate each option against
the seven criteria above and decide which one suits you best.
Or, more likely, your best solution will be to adopt a strategy
involving two or three or more solutions.
Dial up via modem
This is the oldest way to
connect to the internet, and still has a lot of good points to
it. Most laptops these days have modems built in to them,
and most hotel rooms have data ports or at least modular plugs
on their phones, making it easy to connect your computing
device's modem to a phone line and then to dial out and into the
Hotel broadband ethernet
Many hotels these days offer
broadband networking in their hotel rooms - sometimes even
for free. My review explains more about these products.
Wi-Fi Wireless Internet Access
Wi-Fi internet Hotpoints are
springing up around the country. Many airports have some
hotpoint coverage, and all Starbucks stores do. But, as
common as they are, it is probably correct to say that 99.99% of
the country does not have Wi-Fi access, and the access points
that do exist belong to a confusing range of different services,
meaning that you invariably find that you need to sign up for
many different services in order to get connected in multiple
As such, Wi-Fi is a product
that has a lot of promise, but a disappointing reality. It
is great for use within your office or home, but is usually not
so convenient while traveling.
For more information on
Wi-Fi, read my article on
Wi-Fi internet access.
Bluetooth is a new
technology that is starting to become more common in cell
phones, PDAs, and other devices.
It is not, however, a means
to access the internet by itself. It is simply a way for
computer type components to communicate between themselves.
If one of those devices also has internet connectivity (eg a
cellphone) and the other of the devices can use that
connectivity for email and web browsing (eg a PDA) then
Bluetooth is one step in the chain between the internet and the
final device you are using. But Bluetooth does not
automatically imply internet connectivity by itself.
I discuss and explain more
wireless networking here.
Connecting via a Cell Phone
Modern cell phones have
built in modem type adapters that enable them to provide a
connection between your laptop or other computer device and the
Using a cell phone to
connect to the internet has both one very strong advantage and
one very strong disadvantage. The strong advantage is that
cell phone service is almost everywhere you're likely to be
traveling, so it is very convenient. The strong
disadvantage is that (at present, but soon to change) cell phone
connectivity speeds are very slow and are the slowest way of
getting internet access.
Earlier model cellphones
connected via a regular type cell phone call, and you paid
connect time, same as for any other cell phone call. These
types of calls gave very slow connections - typically 9600 baud
(bps) or slower.
More recent cellphones use a
'digital' type connection such as GPRS that can be an 'always
connected' type service and which doesn't require the phone to
make an 'old fashioned' telephone call to the ISP. Because
the connection can be always on, cell phone companies typically
charge you either a flat rate per month or else a fee per MB of
Be warned - if you are
paying per MB of data transferred, these prices can quickly
become extraordinarily expensive. To hide the outrageous
costs they charge, some wireless service providers quote in
terms of cents per kB of data - a harmless seeming 2¢
per kB equates to a hefty $20 per MB. Spend any amount of
time surfing the internet or downloading large emails with
attachments, and you'll be paying for multiple megabytes of
This type of service can be
connected to the internet at the same time as you are also using
the phone for a voice call (a bit like DSL sharing your phone
The cellphone can be
connected to your laptop or PDA either via a special data cable,
or perhaps through the IR ports on both units, or via Bluetooth.
Connection speeds are slow,
typically around 30kb - 40kb, but with long latency, making for
slow interactive internet sessions. Data rates vary
depending on how busy each cell site is, because you're sharing
the digital bandwidth with other users of that site (a bit like
a cable internet modem connection, only more so).
More more information on
this type of connectivity, read my
review of one such phone - the Nokia 3650.
And for a review on a PDA
that can be used together with the Nokia 3650 to access the
internet, read my review of the Palm
Note that wireless service
providers are just now (early 2004) starting to activate new
considerably faster data services.
are offering services that may - in good conditions - give more
than 100kb transfer rates. These new fast services are
called 3G (for 'third generation') services. And
trialing a service that it calls 4G which in theory can offer up
to T1 bandwidth (1.5 Mb) through a cell phone!
Sierra Card cell phone
A twist on the concept of
using your cell phone is offered by Sierra Wireless, who have
developed a range of PCMCIA cards that have, in effect, a cell
phone built onto the card. These are simply plugged into
your laptop (or PDA if it will take PCMCIA cards) and act like
any other network card as far as the laptop is concerned, but
provide a cellular data connection rather than a normal wired
In reality, such cards offer
no better throughput than a regular cell phone, and require you
to create a second account with your wireless service provider.
Probably the best value useage plans can be found with
who offer unlimited internet usage for as little as $30/month.
The cards are costly (about $300) to purchase and will quickly
become obsolete when the new 3G faster data connections become
For more information about
these products, read my review of the
Sierra AirCard 750.
Using a special device
There are various types of
specialty devices that have built in internet connectivity.
These devices usually only offer limited functionality.
An example of such a device
is the very popular
Blackberry wireless email unit. Some combination cell
phone/PDA devices are also available, for example, the
Don't confuse these units
which directly connect to the internet with other units that
have built-in Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth capabilities. These
units are truly self-contained and typically work over much of
the country. The Wi-Fi and Bluetooth units will only work
close to a network gateway.
These units offer extremely
simple connectivity - you just turn the unit on and you're
instantly connected. But due to their very small keyboards
and limited software, they're not well suited for 'power users'.
Last but not least,
sometimes when you're traveling, you can make do simply by
visiting internet cafes. This has the benefit of leaving
your heavy computer gear behind, and if you use a program like
you can access just about any POP3 or IMAP4 email account.
Internet cafes can also be
useful if you do have a laptop. Sometimes - particularly
when I'm in Britain, where hotels charge outrageous costs for
every minute you use the phone in the room, I'll take my laptop
to an internet cafe and get their permission to simply plug
their network cable into my laptop. This means that at an
hourly cost typically very much less than what the hotel would
charge for using the room phone, I get fast broadband access to
my email and anything else I might wish.
If connecting to the
internet is important to you, you'll probably end up choosing
several different methods, because different situations may have
different 'best' solutions.
To take a perhaps extreme
example, in my case, when I'm traveling, I use a laptop that can
connect to the internet via dialup modem, Wi-Fi, Broadband
ethernet, or via a cell phone using IR or Bluetooth. And,
in a typical journey, I'll usually end up using all four
different methods of connectivity at different times!
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13 Feb 2004, 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.