About Wireless Internet Cards for Laptops

by Ken Burnside Google

    There are two kinds of wireless Internet connection in wide use. The most common kind is Wi-Fi, and is usually integrated onto the laptop's motherboard. The less common variety is the cellular data wireless Internet card; these cards -- usually USB plug-ins with an antenna for laptops -- allow your laptop to connect to a 2G, 3G or 4G cellular data network. These devices typically come with the drivers built into the USB stick. They are compatible with Windows and Macintosh computers, and quite a few work with Linux.

    Types Of Connections

    As of late 2012, the market is in the final transitions between 3G networks, with download speeds that are about a fourth as fast as moderately priced DSL lines. Mobile 3G has a download speed of about 350 kilobits per second, while a DSL broadband gives a download speed of 1.2 to 1.5 megabits per second. Mobile 4G wireless, using the LTE standard, can have download speeds ranging from 12 to 20 megabits per second, faster than most cable modems, and comparable to some FiOS high-end broadband connections. The cellular carriers will probably try to steer you to a 4G solution if you're in the market; it's usually worth the extra money. Perhaps more important than the type of data network -- 3G or 4G -- is how wide the coverage area is around the areas you'll use it in.

    Data Plan Pricing

    First, examine your usage patterns; in most cases, getting a mobile Internet connection for your laptop adds to the cost of the data plan you already have for your smartphone or tablet. Carriers are starting to offer shared data plans, and a few still come up with unlimited data plans, as of 2012. Some plans don't charge you per byte of data, instead charging you for overages in minutes connected to the Internet – much the same way they do for overages on minutes in a calling plan. A wireless Internet card will probably increase your data consumption, and you should plan for that before seeing a monthly bill.

    Prepaid Data Plans

    For customers without a wireless data plan for their cell phone, a number of carriers have monthly "unlimited" data plans; these range from $30 to $60 per month, as of November 2012, depending on the carrier and what other options are included in the bundle. This type of plan is usually prepaid for a month at a time, and if you don't use the device, you don't get a refund for not using the Internet. A handful of carriers are experimenting with the "prepaid minutes" model of Internet connection for 3G and 4G Internet access.

    Alternatives

    Android and iOS phones and tablets can act as Wi-Fi hotspots. These devices already have a 3G or 4G Internet connection, and they already have a Wi-Fi antenna for connecting to your home network. it doesn't take a lot of additional hardware to enable them to connect to a computer via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth and allow the computer to access the Internet through the device's data plan. Many carriers charge extra for this service, because it cuts into the sale of wireless Internet cards for computers, and may use a more favorable data rate plan. The technology is called "wireless tethering" and, depending on your device, data plan and carrier, may make more sense than buying a card for your computer.

    About the Author

    Ken Burnside has been writing freelance since 1990, contributing to publications as diverse as "Pyramid" and "Training & Simulations Journal." A Microsoft MVP in Excel, he holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alaska. He won the Origins Award for Attack Vector: Tactical, a board game about space combat.

    Photo Credits

    • Jeffrey Hamilton/Digital Vision/Getty Images