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What Is a 3G Data Card?

While some data cards require a card slot, some use a USB port.
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  • Written By: Anna B. Smith
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 28 July 2014
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3G technology refers to the third generation in wireless digital network standards. Overall it is an upgrade to previous 2G networks, providing faster download speeds and greater reliability. It offers greater security and a wider range of application as well, such as streaming TV and video conferencing. A 3G data card is a wireless card that can be inserted into a lap top or desk top computer to allow it high-speed access to the Internet from any location near a 3G tower.

The primary benefit of a 3G data card is its transportability. Location does not limit users—no wireless hot spots are required to connect to the Internet. It also frees the user of bulky equipment, such as Ethernet cables, that must physically plug into modems. 3g data cards wirelessly access the 3G broadband networks established by carriers through interconnecting cellular towers. These towers transmit Internet data across electromagnetic wavelengths, known as spectrum, between devices. Users can download information, check e-mail, visit Web sites, and watch television on their lap tops while riding in a car, sitting in an airport, or spending the day on a boat. These cards may be especially useful for people who don't have traditional cable or DSL Internet service at their homes, but can receive cellular service from nearby towers.

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Most wireless carriers sell a 3G data card; the speed and reliability generally will vary based on each carrier’s network. Most wireless carriers offer different types of 3G cards, often referring to them as 3G PC cards, air cards, and 3G mobile cards. These cards may interface differently with the computer. For example, some may require a PC card slot, while others may use a USB port. The wireless access the cards provide also typically requires the purchase of a digital data plan as well. Most wireless carriers offer plans for their 3G data cards that provide tiered levels of data downloading or, generally for a higher price, unlimited Internet access.

3G data cards, while convenient, may have limitations as well. Wireless carriers typically offer varying download speeds for transmitting data. The cards often use a wirelessly broadcast data signal to transmit information, which is dependent on the quality of the towers in use. Cards connecting to older towers using slower bands of spectrum may have a more difficult time transmitting large packets of data. The reliability with which a data card connects to the Internet may also be limited by the number of towers within its range. A wireless carrier with few established cellular towers provides a smaller coverage area and less reliable connections than a wireless carrier with a more dense tower coverage map. If coverage remains too low, a 3G data card may not connect to the Internet at all.

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