Mobile Internet Access Comparison

Pros and cons of different Internet-on-the-Go options

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There are several options today for going online with your laptop or cell phone while on the go. These mobile Internet access options range from using free wi-fi at a hotspot to having a mobile broadband (e.g., 3G) network device on your laptop or buying a mobile hotspot device for "anywhere, anytime" Internet access over a cellular network.

Although wi-fi and 3G can be considered complementary technologies, sometimes you have to choose one over the other for either budget reasons (mobile Internet data plans, especially for multiple devices, can be costly) or technological limitations (when the Apple iPad first came out, for example, users had to choose between getting a wi-fi-only model or wait for the version that offered 3G as well as wi-fi).

Here's a look at the pros and cons of different ways to stay connected while traveling or just on the run. (They're ordered below by least to most expensive options, but each has benefits and disadvantages.)

Wi-Fi Hotspots

These are public locations (airports, hotels, coffeeshops) where you can connect your smartphone or laptop wirelessly to the establishment's Internet service.

  • Pros: many hotspots are free, you can find them fairly easily in urban and suburban areas, and food and drinks are often available for purchase
  • Cons: Can be costly even if it's free (you should buy the establishment's coffee/food/etc. That's rule #3 in The Starbuckian Handbook). Wi-Fi hotspots are also usually unsecured (no WPA encryption), and to use the hotspot you have to locate it first, then physically be within range of the hotspot's access point.
  • Best for: using as an occasional virtual office or while traveling

    More: What is a Wi-Fi Hotspot? | Directory of Free Wi-Fi Hotspots

    Internet cafes or Cybercafes

    Internet cafes rent out computer workstations and sometimes also provide wi-fi Internet access.

    • Pros: You don't need to tote a laptop with you, the cafe may have printers/scanners available, and you can often also buy food or drinks
    • Cons: Fewer locations than wi-fi hotspots, can get expensive if you need to work on them for long periods of time, may be prone to viruses/other security issues
    • Best for: travelers (especially international travel), quick/emergency Internet needs

    More: What is an Internet Cafe? | Internet Cafe Directories


    On some cellular networks you can use your cell phone as a modem for your laptop to go online.

    • Pros: Go online anywhere you have a cellular signal, more secure web surfing than sending data over a public open wireless hotspot, depending on your cell phone provider you may not have to pay any extra fees (besides the cell phone's data plan)
    • Cons: Reception can be spotty in some areas or conditions, slowest speed of these options, not allowed by some carriers and/or you may be charged extra for tethering
    • Best for: Internet access when there's no wi-fi available

    More: What Is Tethering? | How to Tether | Bluetooth Tethering

    Mobile Broadband (3G or 4G on your laptop):

    Using a built-in mobile broadband card or a USB modem on your laptop or portable mobile hotspot device, you can get high speed wireless Internet on your laptop wherever you go.

    • Pros: Go online anywhere you have a cellular signal, speeds comparable to residential DSL
    • Cons: Reception can be spotty in some areas or conditions, usually metered or capped at 5GB per month of data
    • Best for: Occasional to regular Internet use in locations when there's no wi-fi available

    More: What is Mobile Broadband? | Mobile Broadband Plans and Services | How To Get 4G or 3G on Your Laptop

    Comparison of Moile Internet Options: Wi-Fi vs. 3G

     Wi-Fi Hotspots & CybercafesMobile Broadband (3G or 4G) & Tethering
    LocationMust be at the hotspot or cybercafe.
    • Around 300,000 wi-fi hotspots around the world
    • Only ~5,000 Internet cafes listed in cybercafe directories
    Virtually Everywhere: Connect wherever you can get a cellular signal.
    • 3G/4G speeds not available in all markets
    SpeedGenerally DSL or cable speeds from 768 kbps to 50 mbps.
    • Wi-fi also is limited to the location's wi-fi protocol speed: 11 mbps to 54 mbps
    Not as fast as wi-fi;
    • Tethering is slowest
    • 3G ranges from 1 to 1.5 mbps
    • 4G promises 10X the speed of 3G
    Cost:Free to ~$10/per hour
    • Many hotspots are free. Frequent travelers may want a dedicated wi-fi Internet service plan for connecting to hotspots across the US and internationally with one account.
    • Cybercafe rates typically reflect the country's cost of living. Many US cybercafes charge $10/hour, while cybercafes in Ecuador are about $1/hour.
    Mobile broadband is usually $60/month. Tethering usually costs the same but is in addition to the cell phone data plan.