Wireless Broadband Buying Guide

No more getting tangled up just trying to check your e-mail. The wireless age is here, and it offers lightning fast broadband with nothing to tie you down.

A key advantages of wireless broadband is that it allows you to have an Internet connection without being physically connected to your Internet Service Provider (ISP). Wireless broadband is one of four main ways to connect to the Internet, and it joins the ranks of copper (dial-up, ADSL, ADSL2+, VDSL), coaxial (cable) and fibre (fibre-to-the-home services used in the planned National Broadband Network). Wireless broadband isn't necessarily a portable Internet solution — you can have wireless broadband and still use a traditional modem/router — but it does provide a variety of options for accessing Internet services and sharing them. Mobile broadband is one type of wireless broadband that many of us are familiar with, and it is generally delivered in the form of a small USB modem or notebook expansion card (for example, an ExpressCard or PCMCIA) from telcos including Telstra, Vodafone, Optus or 3 Mobile. These services are obviously more portable than fixed wireless broadband services and they can even be added as a supplementary service to your existing mobile phone contract. Fixed wireless broadband is generally offered by non-telco companies, for example Unwired. Fixed wireless broadband services use technologies that are slightly different to mobile broadband and require a dedicated modem; often an external modem which can be connected to your computer through a Wi-Fi, Ethernet or USB connection. The key advantage of a fixed wireless broadband service is that you can share it between multiple computers simultaneously. (Some mobile broadband operators like Telstra and 3 Mobile offer similar functionality by using additional modems and routers.) Fixed wireless broadband remains portable in a limited sense, as you can retain the same service no matter where you are, provided you are within your service provider's coverage area and have an available power point. If you are constantly on the move, it would be better to go with a mobile broadband plan, but be sure to check out the various service providers and their plans to find the one best suited to your needs.

Wi-Fi hotspots

Though Wi-Fi hotspots are not the same as wireless broadband, they are still a great way to access the Internet outside of your home. These hotspots are public wireless networks set up by an Internet Service Provider or a venue operator that allow you to access the Internet using your Wi-Fi compatible computer or device. Some of these hotspots provide Internet services for free, but most are restricted in some way, often requiring you to pay a small fee or have a prior account with the service provider. Wi-Fi hotspots generally use 802.11b/g technology and have limited range; they are best suited to use within the immediate vicinity of the network such as at a cafe, in a hotel or even on a train in Queensland. Hotspots certainly don't offer the same mobility as wireless broadband — and definitely aren't as widespread as mobile transmission towers — but if you need to get on the Internet in one particular location, then Wi-Fi hotspots can be a good option. One advantage of Wi-Fi hotspots is that they can deliver faster Internet speeds than standard wireless broadband. Since hotspots are linked to a fixed broadband service like ADSL2+ they can theoretically provide speeds of up to 24 megabits per second (Mbps) to the user, as compared to the maximum of 21Mbps currently offered by the fastest wireless broadband services. Realistically, the maximum speed won't be reached, particularly if the Wi-Fi hotspot is being used by several dozen people simultaneously, but it can be more reliable in some instances than wireless broadband.

The technology

Mobile broadband is essentially a mobile phone for your PC — it uses the same GSM and 3G technologies that provide voice and data to your mobile. Like mobiles, wireless broadband devices require SIM cards with a linked mobile number in order to determine your unique identity and charge your account. As a result, wireless broadband doesn’t require all-new technology to run: it employs the same transmission towers already used to service your mobile. GSM technology isn't tailored to deliver data and, as a result, only provides speeds comparable to a dial-up connection. However, this technology is still available as a fallback for your wireless broadband service should you lose the 3G connection or if you aren't in a 3G coverage area. The majority of data is delivered over 3G and more recently 3.5G (a.k.a. HSPA) which can deliver data at speeds of between 3.6Mbps and a theoretical 42Mbps. Most current wireless broadband modems work at 3.6Mbps or 7.2Mbps, though Telstra offers a theoretical maximum speed of 21Mbps over its Next G network provided you have a compatible modem. Whereas mobile broadband typically uses the 850-2100MHz range of the radio spectrum to deliver Internet services, fixed broadband services use an outside spectrum that doesn't interfere with established mobile technologies. For example, Unwired uses the reserved 3500MHz spectrum. Because this is separate from existing mobile-based technologies, coverage is inferior to mobile broadband (Unwired is currently only available in selected parts of Sydney and Melbourne) and speeds are much slower (an average of 1Mbps). Both technologies allow you to take your Internet with you, but the speed and coverage benefits of mobile broadband make it a better choice for most consumers. In many cases, you can also share the same bill between your mobile phone and Internet account.

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