Sprint Nextel announced its third-generation (3G) cellular data network last week, with dozens of cities already live and more coverage planned by the end of the year. Verizon Wireless has offered a similar network for more than a year with no official Mac support; Sprint Nextel appears likely to take a different path. This is good news for Mac users who need wireless Internet access, but who don't want to hunt for a Wi-Fi hotspot such as a coffeeshop or hotel lobby.
The Sprint and Verizon networks use EVDO (Evolution Data Only), a standard developed by Qualcomm that offers real-world speeds of several hundred kilobits per second throughout a coverage area, which can span entire metropolitan regions. The two companies have also installed service in most major airports and along certain commuter routes.
Both companies offer a stand-alone subscription to the service that tops out with an $80 per month rate for unlimited use via a PC Card. This drops to $60 per month if you're a voice customer and agree to a two-year commitment (with early cancellation penalties if you decide to drop the data service).
Verizon's PC Card options don't include official Mac OS X support. Good news, though: a site called EVDOinfo provides details on its own workarounds and on Apple's somewhat hidden support. Sprint Nextel has chosen a Novatel card that lacks Mac drivers, but, again, EVDOinfo says they have the scoop. (They also sell the cards and service plans.)
Here's the better news, however - the PC Card isn't necessary. Verizon and Sprint both offer phones that handle EVDO and more widely available slower networks for voice and data. These phones typically support both USB and Bluetooth for connecting to a computer and synchronizing data.
Verizon doesn't offer a tethered subscription for EVDO where you use the phone as your EVDO modem. This would seem an obvious way to bypass the PC Card limitation. Sprint, however, will add unlimited data for $25 per month on top of even the most limited voice subscription with an EVDO phone. That's the cheapest and most natural way for a Mac user to go.
It also means you could use the service with any Mac that supports Bluetooth, not just PowerBooks with a PC Card. And you can use the phone with a variety of computers more easily than a PC Card that requires drivers or special configuration.
Cingular is also entering the fray with its own high-speed service running a flavor of W-CDMA known as HSDPA (High-Speed Download Packet Access) that will meet or exceed EVDO speeds. Pricing and platform support isn't yet clear; the service will roll out this month nationally in about 15 to 20 cities.
A 3G cellular data connection isn't necessarily a substitute for Wi-Fi service, by the way, but it's increasingly available and a good option because you can roam nationally - including airport access - with a single fixed plan from one carrier.
Wi-Fi's advantage is little or no configuration for hotspot usage, built-in hardware on most computers, pay-as-you-go options that are quite reasonable, and potential higher bandwidth across a local network and to the Internet. (Some hotspots might have just a 512 Kbps DSL line, but most for-fee hotspots have 1.5 Mbps downstream; large locations offer multiples of that.)
For business travelers, Wi-Fi's natural advantages are outweighed by the array of fees and many operators involved in North American airport Wi-Fi. No one company aggregates all of the major airports with Wi-Fi, and not all big airports in the United States have Wi-Fi - but they all have EVDO. Travelers might trade a few hundred Kbps in bandwidth for Sprint Nextel's broad coverage and only slightly higher monthly cost.