News Column

Don't Get Caught With Your Web Down

Nov. Issue

J. Nisen -- Contributor

It's a potential nightmare that can affect your business life and your private affairs: the sudden shutdown of your Internet service.

Imagine you are on the road, trying to edit a critical PowerPoint presentation for your sales team, or perhaps managing your small business's banking from home, transferring funds to make a crucial payment. Suddenly, your modem goes haywire, and you can't do either of those things, or any of a million important tasks upon which you've come to depend that require a reliable, high-speed Internet connection.

There are a few standby measures you can take, sure: a local coffee shop or library is very likely to have open-access, or possibly paid, Wi-Fi; not to mention most McDonald's locations offer Wi-Fi these days. But you'll be subject to the hours of operation of those businesses, as well as their rules, which could include time limits or food purchase requirements. Of course, you may lose your train of thought if you have to lug your laptop a few miles before digging back into your work. Even worse, there are security concerns about shared Wi-Fi networks.

You want to re-establish a reliable Internet connection. And you want to do it on your own terms. Here are a couple of the best options.

1. Tethering. If you have a mobile high-speed connection on your smartphone, you can hook that smartphone up to your computer and it will act as a mobile modem. This is called "tethering," and all the major wireless telecom companies support it in one fashion or another. Some smartphones, such as the Motorola Photon from Sprint that Tech Vault spotlighted last issue, even have the capacity to act as mobile hot spots, effectively turning themselves into a mobile Wi-Fi network for your other devices. But even if your smartphone doesn't have the mobile hot spot capability, so long as you have the cable to connect your phone to a USB port, you have everything you need to enable mobile Internet access to the connected device.

All the major carriers have a monthly tethering fee, above and beyond your data fee, of about $15–$20. I would suggest checking your carrier's site to ensure your phone has tethering capabilities, and download the instructions for tethering that device to your computer as well. If you want to simply pay up and add $15–$20 to your monthly bill as an insurance policy in case you need the tethering, it could be a good investment in the long run. If you can't really afford it, and want to turn your smartphone into a tether on the spot, you should have those instructions and your carrier's customer service phone number handy. To activate a tethering service without a prior subscription is likely a violation of your terms of service (TOS) with your carrier. But with a phone call and for a slight fee, you can change your plan on the fly and get that critical information or task done.

2. Dedicated devices. There are plenty of mobile broadband devices that simply plug into your computer or act as mobile Wi-Fi hot spots. The prices on these devices can vary (usually about $50 and up), and many require a monthly data plan, much like your smartphone itself. However, if you're shopping for more of a mobile Internet insurance policy than something you want to use frequently, a product such as Virgin Mobile's Ovation MC760 could fit the bill. It costs about $80, which is a chunk of change, but it has two advantages. One, it's basically plug and play: Just buy it, plug it in, follow a few prompts, and you should be good to go in a pinch. Two, and even better, it involves no long-term contracts, no commitments, no activation fees—you only pay for what you need. (There are three basic options, the cheapest of which is $10 for 10 days of mobile Internet.) You can also change that plan as you need to, on the fly. So the device is a bit of an initial investment, but you only pay for the Web, via a 3G network, when you need to use it.

Our home Internet providers and even hotels have largely excelled at providing high-speed Web access whenever we need it. But this is real life; at times, even the most reliable of services can falter. That doesn't mean that you need to be subject to your ISP's ups and downs in a critical situation. It may take an investment, both in money and learning the process, but having a mobile Internet insurance policy may make an important difference in the long run.

Source: (c) 2012. All rights reserved.

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