3G vs. Wi-Fi hotspots

Wi-Fi is cheaper, but 3G is potentially much more convenient. Will WiMax change the equation?

Now that 3G is becoming a viable wide-area wireless solution, is it time to kiss Wi-Fi hotspots goodbye? Not likely. Both will be around for a long time, and each has its distinct advantages and disadvantages. For your company, the choice depends on budget and where and how often your users travel and need to connect.

[ Talkback: Is the hotspot era over? ]

For the average traveling business user, Wi-Fi is still convenient and inexpensive. The hardware is essentially free, as it’s built into just about every notebook manufactured in the past three years. Availability is widespread and in just the locations most business users are likely to need it -- corporate offices, airports, hotels, and coffee bars -- and the bandwidth is hard to beat. Not to mention that the monthly subscription cost of Wi-Fi is roughly half that of a 3G account, and in a growing number of hotels and in some localities building municipal Wi-Fi, connectivity is virtually free.

The problem with Wi-Fi is that the service is decentralized and chaotic. Wherever you’re traveling, you first have to find out where Wi-Fi is offered and then hope it’s either free or falls into your subscription plan. If not, you’re likely to pay somewhere between $8 and $12 for a day’s usage, which can add up to more than a monthly 3G subscription if you’re a frequent business traveler. Every corporate office has its own policies for visitor Wi-Fi access. And there are times when you end up fighting with dead spots, slow performance, and frequently dropped connections due to interference and overloaded access points.

The big enticement of 3G is its locally pervasive availability. If it’s offered in your metro area, you don’t need to look for a coffee bar or pirate someone’s home connection. You can hook in from a park bench, a moving taxi, or a commuter train, and you’ll always be using the same service and software. When you’ve tasted that kind of freedom, it’s hard to give it up. Performance is a little slower than Wi-Fi, but because you’re dealing with a closed network, 3G tends to be more consistent. The big difference for now is that upload performance is generally a fraction of download, whereas with Wi-Fi they’re basically the same. If you intend to send a lot of large files, such as photos or videos, you’ll notice the difference.

The cost of 3G is also high, with hardware averaging between $50 and $200 per laptop card and services averaging $60 per month for unlimited use. There are, however, volume discounts, lower-priced phone or BlackBerry-as-modem plans, and bundles with voice and Wi-Fi. If you’re not in one of the major metro areas served by your carrier, you’re basically out of luck, although you may be able to hook into a significantly slower 2.5G connection. And with 3G, you’re talking about competition among a handful of providers who have sunk billions into their 3G investment, which may well mean higher prices down the road. Finally, the standards situation is a mess compared with Wi-Fi. Buy a notebook with 3G built in and you’re essentially stuck with a single provider. Even then, you’re in for a significant upgrade cost next year when your provider moves to the next version of its service.

On the other hand, as 3G becomes more ubiquitous, its flexibility and consistency will be hard to beat. If you’re a frequent traveler who needs true mobility, with the option to connect just about anywhere, 3G is probably your answer. If you’re like the rest of us, you may be relying on Wi-Fi for a long time.

Keep an eye out for mobile WiMax, or 802.16e, a fourth-generation wide-area wireless technology pushed by Intel and others, that uses that same logical link control standard as 802.11 but has greater range and performance -- from three to 10 miles, with speeds as fast as 30Mbps -- and replaces 802.11’s contention-based architecture with one based on time slicing. WiMax is in its infancy, but the mobile standard was ratified by the IEEE in late 2005, interoperability testing has begun, and deployments are expected to start in the United States in 2007.