When it comes to cellular data access for the small business, it's the network ... that may not be working so well.

Of all the techno indignities small businesses must endure, shopping for mobile phone and data service is about the worst.

Yes, buying computers and building Web sites is frustrating, expensive and mind-bogglingly hard to extract value from, but at least you sort of get something for your money. The computers work. The Web site functions. But cell phone and data service?

That remains the ultimate small business bait-and-switch.

Cell operators like

Verizon

(VZ) - Get Report

,

Sprint

(S) - Get Report

,

AT&T

(T) - Get Report

and

T-Mobile

( DT) all love to trumpet the power and effectiveness of their networks. But real, fungible estimates about the quality of service are tough to capture.

So when I have an experience that shows me an actual comparative advantage for the small business, it is big news here in Blum world.

And here it is: When it comes to data service -- getting Web access on your mobile computer -- I would be very dubious about claims of superior network performance. It really depends on the product and the service. Results can vary widely.

Over the past several months, I had a chance to compare the exact same wireless data device -- the

Novatel

(NVTL)

Ovation USB 727 -- running on the exact same computer -- a

Sony

(SNE) - Get Report

Vaio TZ -- essentially over the exact same terrain.

I was in and around New York City and traveling out to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Detroit and Baltimore. And with that rig and travel, I was able to directly compare two competitive wireless data networks: Verizon's BroadbandAccess and Sprint's Mobile Broadband. And in many ways, the Sprint product was superior to the higher-priced Verizon riff.

The Novatel USB 727 is part of the family of so-called USB data modems. I like USB data access tools: They plug into those cute little USB ports in your laptop, and they tend to quickly create a stable wireless connection to a fast cellular network.

And so it was with Sprint's version of the USB 727. I installed the unit in an office lobby while plagued by some fairly hilarious wireless data usage problems -- I was covering

Apple's

(AAPL) - Get Report

mega-trade event MacWorld, and every hotspot and wireless access point in the greater San Francisco area was completely clogged.

The 727 worked well right out of the box. It launched a very nicely done broadband connectivity application that dovetailed with the

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

network access software and into my laptop's wireless integration package. And it provided stable, fast access over the next several months across the country.

Bravo, Sprint.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same of Verizon.

Verizon takes a different tack for data access. You load software to connect to the network, but it is not the same "connect to anything" broadband application that Sprint provides. Instead, you install VZAccess Manager, a centralized software package that attempts to control

all

connectivity to your laptop.

In my testing, access is not what this application provided.

In a little more than a month of solid testing, my assistant and I simply could not get the USB 727 modem to reliably work on the Verizon network. We had almost every conceivable problem: The Vista upgrade from Microsoft confused the software so the modem refused to work. Drivers were often left installed deep in the operating system that created conflicts. The VZAccess Manager fought with Sony's wireless connectively tool and we had to de-install that application to get the modem to function. On a trip to Baltimore, the unit flat out refused to connect to the network.

I basically broke the thing, which is really remarkable.

Verizon tried hard. Customer service was excellent each time I called. And the company takes an interesting spin on this product.

"We view VZAccess Manager as a convenient way for customers to access all their data access," says Maitland Muse, director of wireless data solutions for Verizon Wireless in Warren, N.J.

Muse suspected my results were due to the complex configuration of the testing machines I use, or maybe a bad modem.

That may be correct -- I am hard on the gear I test, and I have used Verizon's broadband products before with great success.

Still, Verizon's desire to control

all

your network access from your business laptop is a dangerous choice. It provides a service your company might just not need. Worse, you will have to pay for the privilege.

In the New York area, Sprint charges $99 for a 727 modem, plus $60 a month for unlimited usage. Verizon charges $149 for the same unit and has the same $60-per-month access charge, but that is for only 5Gb per month. Beyond that, it charges a stunning 49 cents per Mb.

Wow.

Now is Sprint wireless data right for your business? Unfortunately, there is no short-cut to choosing wireless connectivity. You have to test this stuff, see if it meets your needs and return it within 30 days if it doesn't.

But as of now, it would be foolish to ignore Sprint's data products as a small-business alternative to Verizon. Sprint's data products are cheaper and, in my experience, superior to Verizon's. There is simply no reason not to test them and see if they can work for you.

Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.