How to Choose ISP

By James Mathewson

3G wireless

Wireless Internet access is growing fast, primarily for real-time e-mail systems like the Blackberry (and now offered by Palm and Handspring for certain providers). Verizon and Sprint now promise connections 10 times faster than the traditional 14Kbps connection. Tests indicate that the top speed of 144Kbps is rarely met, but at last we are seeing usable speeds for tasks beyond e-mail. Not that users want to surf the Web with their smart phones, but wireless modems in laptops make 3G a viable option when you're away from the office but within your calling plan.

The wireless Internet is still an early-adopter service, though. There are myriad complexities involved in just dealing with wireless providers for phone usage. Add a layer of Internet usage complexity on top of that, and it may be wiser to go with your company's plan and hope for the best.

If you're a smart-phone user, that device may make your choice for you. For example, I ordered a Handspring Treo because it seems to be the best of the smart phones out there. But my company's plan is with Verizon, and Handspring has no plans to offer a Verizon-ready model any time soon. In this case, I will be forced to use VoiceStream if I want to use the PDA for calling and Internet. Yet VoiceStream has no 3G option. Handspring does have plans to make a Sprint-ready model, which may be my only option if I want to take advantage of the unit's unique capabilities. I guess I'll have to wait for the Sprint model to come out.

For those who just want to turn it on and use it, you may have to wait longer than I will--at least until the end of the year to get all the 3G features to work with your gadget of choice. It may not be worth your time trying to plan for that event, because wireless plans change faster than the technologies. In any event, few will use 3G as their primary broadband option. It likely will never be fast enough, reliable enough, or secure enough to be used as anything but a supplemental access technology.

Wi-Fi hot spots

An emerging Internet access method is Wi-Fi , a.k.a. 802.11b. Though it was not originally intended for this purpose, Wi-Fi access nodes, or hot spots, are cropping up by the thousands in public spaces like coffee shops and airport terminals. It is by far the fastest growing Internet access method. And at speeds of up to 11Mbps and prices that are often free, you can see why.

Still, unless you live in a coffee shop or on a park bench, Wi-Fi will only be a supplemental Internet access method, at least until every streetlight and signpost has a node. But if you frequent a coffee shop on your "work from home" day, ask if they have a hot spot. If so, it's definitely worth getting the gear to access it. And if you want additional users in your home to be able to access the Net, you can set up a hot spot there (that works off of your DSL or cable connection) and give your spouse or kids broadband without digging into the walls. This is the coolest trend since peer-to-peer dial-up.

Whatever your access method, do your homework. A bad broadband experience is worse than none at all. But if you check into all your available options, chances are you can tailor a solution to fit your needs, if not your budget.