Widely Accessible

Mobile Computing v. Broadband Networks, Round 1.

By Will Rourk

Broadband networking is the technology behind the way your cell-phone or smart-phone is able to send and receive data. Also known as WWAN (Wireless Wide Area Networks), the range of connectivity depends on your cell-phone’s range – a much wider sphere of connectivity than standard Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity). This is great for your smart-phone but how does that help you connect your laptop or mobile computing device?

A network, ad infinitum. Image courtesy Fernando S. Aldado.


Most computers these days have the ability to connect to your cellular phone via a process called Bluetooth pairing. Bluetooth is simply a technology that allows your computer to talk wirelessly to other devices. Your phone, for instance, can become a modem to connect to your DSL or internet cable service. The problem with this, though, is that service providers are inconsistent when it comes to this feature.  Some phone companies are not keen on the idea of piggy-backing onto your cell-phone’s data services to get free internet for your laptop.

In addition to offering cell-phone service, most companies also offer broadband networking service that is handled by a special connection card. These cards usually go into your laptop or computing device’s USB port or PCMCIA card slot. A network card acts as an external antenna by which your computing device can access broadband networks. Just about all of the major carriers (Sprint/Nextel, AT&T, and so on) provide data service plans for subscribers with trademark titles “Mobile Broadband Connection Plan” or “LaptopConnect” card plans.

Alternately, many laptops come equipped with broadband networking devices already installed, making a separate card unnecessary. Most computer manufacturers partnered with network service providers to offer specialized data services. The Lenovo ThinkPad series laptops, for instance, have the option of installed WWAN and a rebate offer for network service with Verizon’s Wireless’ “BroadbandAccess.” Both Hewlett-Packard and Panasonic are taking advantage of the Gobi™ global mobile internet service which allows laptops to connect to network service providers using a variety of high speed broadband technologies. Since broadband connections react similarly to cell phone voice connections, broadband service can be limited to regional and national areas. Gobi™ service provides a way to ensure connections wherever services are available in the world outside of the usual cell phone service regions. After all, this is the main purpose of mobile technology: to stay connected no matter where you go.

Consumer demand have influenced the streamlined design of laptops and other mobile computing devices. You might have noticed some of the “ultraportable” laptops available such as Apple’s Macbook Air, Lenovo’s IdeaPad and Fujitsu’s LifeBook: smaller, thinner and lighter-weight than traditional laptops. For professional mobility, a popular alternative to laptop computing are pocket-sized devices. The UMPC (Ultra-Mobile PC) is not new, but it is becoming sophisticated enough to provide the computing power of a laptop in a handheld device. These devices can run standard versions of Windows XP or Vista or variants of Linux. When buying a mobile device the connection technology is just as important as the form factor. Similar to ultraportable laptops, many of these devices are also coming equipped with WWAN capabilities. The Samsung Q1-CMXP, in partnership with AT&T, provides broadband networking access via HSDPA, a form of broadband connection that is quickly becoming a faster mode of data transfer than the standard EV-DO connection used by most cell-phones. Another UMPC device is the OQO 02, in partnership with Sprint and Verizon, to provide broadband access. The form factor of the 02 is a lot less bulky than the Q1 providing even greater mobility. But the factor to consider might be the networking capability of a mobile device. The Q1 has adopted faster HSDPA broadband connectivity while the 02 uses the more ubiquitous (but slower) EV-DO connection.

So why even use Wi-Fi if WWAN provides greater coverage? The main reason is cost.  While Wi-Fi isn’t free to provide, access to Wi-Fi connections at any non-password  protected hotspot (such as the one at your favorite coffee shop) can be made freely with your laptop or mobile device’s built in WiFi antenna. Anytime you connect to a broadband network, however, you are being charged by your ISP or cell-phone company. Whether or not you have unlimited data connections in your service plan, you are paying for every connection.

What about connection speed? Wi-Fi speeds are usually faster than even the emerging 3g (third generation) broadband networks. And then there’s the fabled promise of WiMax to consider. WiMax is like Wi-Fi on steroids, providing a much wider area of high speed wireless network coverage. For a few years now, it has been the promised solution to free wireless networking for everyone and cities like Philadelphia have looked into the possibility of hardwiring their neighborhoods with WiMax transmitters for free network access. Only a couple of months ago Sprint tested its own proprietary WiMax technology called XOHM on the streets of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. But, even WiMax has its geographic limitations in providing wireless access much like WiFi does. With the phone companies banking on the success of broadband networking plans, it’s uncertain what will become of WiMax and the prospects of free internet for all. Like many technologies these days, the current state of network accessibility is transitional. Through this transition, though, more choices are becoming available for professionals to stay connected outside of the hardwired office.

Will Rourk is a digital media specialist in the University of Virginia Library System’s Digital Medial Lab.

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