One of the key advantages of wireless broadband is, of course, the ability to take your Internet connection with you. Although many people think that all wireless broadband services are mobile, an important distinction needs to be made, between mobile broadband and portable broadband. Even fixed wireless broadband (ie, confined to one building) is portable because you can move anywhere in the building and have constant access without being confined to a power point or external modem.
Portable broadband means that you can access the Internet anywhere within a certain coverage area. This normally means that you are in a hot-spot, near a base station or have an antenna to connect you to a base station.
Mobile broadband is a newer phenomenon and one which is growing rapidly. Mobile broadband enables you to access your wireless broadband while on the move, meaning you can use it while on the train, bus or ferry. In Australia, true mobile wireless is available through iBurst's technology but this is set to change with the introduction of WiMAX (more on WiMax later).
If mobility is important, be careful to check with your ISP about mobility options. OzEmail, for instance, which resells both Unwired and iBurst, makes the distinction between mobile and portable wireless Internet. Veritel, another reseller of both services, calls its Unwired service "fixed wireless Internet," while its iBurst product is called "mobile wireless Internet." (Incidentally, we find the Veritel nomenclature a little confusing, since it is possible to take the Unwired modem from place to place and use the account wherever you may be - you just can't use it while actually moving).
The idea of being able to access your wireless broadband outside your home began with Wi-Fi hotspots. These are places where you could go and (if you had a subscription to the service) access the Internet from your notebook through a local Wi-Fi access point. Wi-Fi hotspot services are still around, especially in cafes, restaurants and other public places. A number of service providers, such as Telstra, Azure Wireless, Optus Connect, SkyNet Global and iPrimus, have set up networks of such wireless hotspots around the country. To access the Internet through one of their Wi-Fi hotspots, you need an account with the provider and a standard Wi-Fi (802.11b or g) network card in your notebook or PDA. Some providers will have 'roaming' partnerships with other providers which further extends the coverage available. For example, SkyNet Global will let customers use its own hotspots plus those of its partners which include Telstra, Azure and Unwired. Check each provider's website to view a map of their coverage.
However, wireless hotspots have largely fallen out of favour as wide-area mobile broadband services gain popularity.
Led by iBurst and Unwired at the present time in Australia, these services offer metropolitan-wide reception areas and broadband speeds of up to 1Mbps. A single iBurst account, for instance, gives you broadband access to the Internet from nearly anywhere in metropolitan Sydney or Melbourne (along with several other cities as the network constantly expands). This is made possible by their network of aerials which act like uber Wi-Fi access points, delivering blanket coverage of wireless networking over the metropolitan areas.
With wide-area wireless broadband services, you have one account, which you use to access the Internet from your home, office, park, or even on the train. As long as you have your modem and a PC, and are in a coverage area, you have Internet access. This is a major benefit to those who move around a lot, or want to have one Internet account for both work and home.
Wide-area wireless broadband providers have been careful to keep pricing parity with ADSL services. You can't get quite as good a deal on wireless broadband as you can on ADSL, but the gap is narrowing. With wireless, prices range from $50 to $80 per month for a 512Kbps connection and a reasonable quota (5-20GB), and around $100 per month for a 1Mbps connection with a similar quota. After reaching your quota, most providers either restrict you to dial-up speeds for the rest of the billing period or allow you to buy extra volume at a fixed price.
While we're not covering it extensively here, there is another solution for users to whom coverage or mobility is paramount: using the mobile phone network data services. All the major mobile phone network providers offer GPRS services, and some offer 3G data services that can deliver Internet access at near-broadband speeds. However, these are not consumer services; at present GPRS and 3G are extremely expensive (in some cases over a hundred times more than consumer Internet access) and targeted primarily at businesses.
The availability of wireless broadband works very much like that of mobile phones. If you're in range of a wireless receiver (equivalent, in this sense, to a mobile cell tower), then you have an Internet connection. If not, then you have nothing. In some cases, you may be just in range but have poor or intermittent reception, which might result in slower than normal speeds. You do not need line-of-sight to get reception.
Each of the providers has a range of wireless receivers stationed around their coverage areas. Unwired, for instance, claims to have enough receivers to cover the homes of more than 90 per cent of the population of Sydney.
The most important thing to look at when choosing a wireless broadband provider is whether they have coverage in all the areas you might want to use your broadband connection. You need to check with the provider very carefully. At the moment none of the major providers have anything like mobile phone coverage, but they do cover the most densely populated areas of the major cities. If you want mobile phone-like coverage, you need to look into GPRS or 3G data services.
If you're in a marginal reception area, such as the outlying areas of the major cities, you may find the connection drops out occasionally, as weather patterns and other interference wreak havoc with your wireless connection. For this reason, we recommend only going with service providers that have some kind of money-back guarantee for those who can't get good reception. You don't want to be caught with an Internet connection that only works half the time.
Wireless Broadband Buying Guide 1
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26 October 2005
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