16 May

Keeping Wi-Fi Always Within Range

By THOMAS J. FITZGERALD

It’s enough to give tech devotees the shivers: imagine being stuck on a train with no Wi-Fi, or out of range of the free access provided by coffee shops and bookstores.

An important business report could go unfinished. Access to a customer list could be cut off. And any number of items you’re accustomed to using on a laptop computer could be rendered unreachable.
But there is a growing list of options, including turning your cellphone into a Wi-Fi hot spot or buying small independent devices, to ensure a constant link to the Web.

Start with the basics. Before buying a hot spot device or paying for a plan that adds this sort of capability to a cellphone, consider the coverage area for data. Review a map that shows how well the services provided by, say, the Clearwire network, which is owned by Sprint, work in certain areas.
This map is usually on the carrier’s Web site or at its store. Network speed is important, too: a 4G network is faster than 3G, for example, and while 4G is about the fastest available, some 4G networks are faster than others. This is important, as the Wi-Fi options can be dizzying.

Chances are, smartphone owners already have a hot spot in their pockets. Most newer models of the iPhone, Android phones, BlackBerrys and Windows phones have built-in hot spots. Enabling the feature, known as tethering, is straightforward; on an iPhone 5, for example, select Settings, then General, then Cellular. To wall off interlopers, you can secure the connection with encryption and a password. But a word of warning: using the hot spot feature puts additional strain on the battery, so don’t stray too far from the charger.

The major carriers offer the hot spot feature in their smartphone plans. T-Mobile includes it at no extra cost in its Simple Choice offering. Plans start at $50 a month and include 500 megabytes of high-speed data use on the phone or in tethering. That also includes the phone’s talk and texting services. The data can be increased for an extra $10 a month for each additional two gigabytes, to a maximum of 12.
Verizon includes the hot spot feature in its Share Everything plan at no extra cost. A plan with one gigabyte of data costs $50 a month, plus $40 for the phone’s other services, like talking and texting. It provides access to Verizon’s 4G LTE network for both the phone and tethering. Users can move up to two gigabytes for an extra $10, or four gigabytes for $20.

AT&T’s Mobile Share plans include the hot spot feature, starting at $40 for a gigabyte of data plus $45 for the phone’s talk and text services. A $70 option, with four gigabytes of data, and several others are also available.

Sprint charges an add-on fee to use the phone for tethering; $20 a month for two gigabytes of data, or $50 for six gigabytes. That’s in addition to the data plan and other services for the phone. The same plans are available for tablets, allowing users to turn an iPad or Android tablet into a hot spot. Other carriers also offer the hot spot feature for tablets.

Stand-alone devices are another option from the major carriers. Some have a contract while others are month-to-month or pay-as-you-go. Verizon offers the Jetpack 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot MiFi 5510L at no cost with a two-year contract (four gigabytes for $50; 10 gigabytes for $80).

T-Mobile offers the Sonic 2.0 Mobile HotSpot LTE, the company’s first mobile hot spot for its 4G LTE network. It has a screen, supports up to eight Wi-Fi-capable devices and costs $150 (or a $30 down payment with $5 monthly payments for 24 months). Data plans start at 500 megabytes for $20, or two gigabytes for $30, and other increments up to 12 gigabytes for $80.

The other option is to hunt down public access points. If no free option is within range, Boingo, with more than 600,000 hot spots worldwide, may have one nearby.

The company offers a variety of plans at boingo.com/wifi-plans. Customers of Comcast, Cablevision and other providers of home Internet access can use more than 100,000 public hot spots in many major cities.

So don’t fret. With the correct tools and planning, you’ll never have to be in a wireless desert.

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