What is a Wireless PC AirCard&Reg;?

R. Kayne

A wireless PC AirCard® is a cordless modem designed to bring Internet access to a mobile or desktop computer via cellular technology. The wireless PC AirCard® communicates with cell towers using an access phone number assigned at the time the user establishes an account. Unlike other forms of Internet access, the Internet Service Provider (ISP) in this case is a cellular carrier.

A wireless PC AirCard® can be used to communicate with cell towers.
A wireless PC AirCard® can be used to communicate with cell towers.

All major cellular carriers offer wireless broadband as an option to a regular cell phone account, while many also offer it as a stand-alone service. It requires the purchase of a wireless PC AirCard®. These devices are manufactured by Sierra Wireless®, branded according to the carrier. Since each carrier uses its own protocols, a wireless PC AirCard® is not interchangeable between carriers.

All major cellular carriers offer wireless broadband as an option on a regular cell phone account.
All major cellular carriers offer wireless broadband as an option on a regular cell phone account.

There are two types of wireless broadband plans available from cellular carriers: the unlimited plan, and the pay-as-you-go plan. Let’s take a quick look at each.

Unlimited plans are a good buy for businesses with field representatives or traveling executives. Alternate technologies such as Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) and cable are less expensive for the average person, although unlimited cellular broadband might be an option for someone who does not have DSL or cable in his or her area, but does have cell service. As of spring 2009, unlimited plans run about $80 US Dollars (USD) per month, though businesses might receive deep discounts for company plans with multiple subscribers.

Pay-as-you-go plans do not have recurring fees, but a one-time fee which purchases a pass to use the wireless PC AirCard® as often as needed until the time block expires. The smallest increment of time that can be purchased is generally 24-hours, which can run about $15 USD, though prices vary. During the 24-hour period the wireless PC AirCard® will have unlimited access to the Internet, but at the close of the period, access will be blocked, regardless of how much or how little the account was utilized during the activated period. Minutes do not “roll over.”

Longer periods are also available for purchased in blocks of one or more weeks, or one or more months. This can be extremely convenient for business trips or vacations, eliminating the need to worry about spotty access provided by hotels or local hotspots. Using a wireless PC AirCard® you can get online from the back seat of a tour bus, from a train, or from a client’s offices without having to ask for access. The only caveat is that the cellular carrier you’ve chosen for broadband access provides service in the area.

Larger carriers have roaming contracts with competitors to provide national and international coverage in many cases, but roaming charges might apply, depending on your location. Be sure to read the fine print and ask questions before committing to a carrier. Find a carrier that services the areas or countries you might travel within, preferably without roaming fees.

It’s also important to choose a wireless PC AirCard® that supports the newest technologies. Cellular architecture continues to evolve from second generation networks to third and fourth generation networks. An AirCard that supports the most current technologies and is also backward compatible with older technologies will ensure you’re covered no matter where you find yourself. For international travel, the AirCard should support tri-band and quad-band frequencies.

Note that unlimited access, whether purchased monthly or by time block, does not translate to unlimited bandwidth on cellular networks. Bandwidth is consumed by large downloads, and the terms of service for the carrier likely stipulates a cap on bandwidth usage. If you’ll need to download extremely large files or otherwise consume large amounts of bandwidth, read the contract carefully, as every extra megabyte over the allotted amount will incur an extra fee. For the average person, allotted bandwidth should be more than adequate, but one should still be aware of any limitations to avoid unexpected charges.

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