Even in these dark economic times, the small business is going through a marvelous revolution: It is moving to the Web. By now you really should be doing at least some of your word processing, collaboration or fiscal modeling on the Internet using tools from Google (STOCK QUOTE:GOOG) Apps, smaller players such as Salesforce.com (STOCK QUOTE CRM) or start-ups like Zoho. Yes, great new tools abound, but with all this hip Webbiness comes a new challenge: staying connected to the Web as you travel.
All major cell operators with legitimate fast data networks -- AT&T (STOCK QUOTE: T), Verizon (STOCK QUOTE: VZ) and Sprint Nextel (STOCK QUOTE:S) -- are pushing data products aimed at the traveling small-business humanoid. These operations offer an ever-expanding line of broadband access devices that either use built-in receivers or plug-in outboard expansion devices to harness their new, fast 3G networks to offer Web access on the go.
Sprint recently rolled out a new Compass 577 USB modem, which the company bills as the smallest wireless connectivity device in the nation. It's cute and reasonably priced at $50 with a plan. But beware: Although Sprint offers an excellent all-you-can-eat voice-and-data plan for its smart phones and other integrated devices at $99, the data plan required for the modem is limited to 5GB a month for a not-so-cheap $60 a month.
Verizon also offers many devices. I like the USB727 modem priced at $30, supported by a $60/5GB plan. A 50MB package runs $40.
But probably the biggest wireless data mojo right now is held by AT&T. The company has reinvented itself as the wireless data carrier to beat with its exclusive deal with Apple's (APPL) ( STOCK QUOTE: AAPLE) iPhone. And AT&T has become very aggressive with other broadband-access products.
Its standard USBConnect 881 wireless modem, for example, is available as a refurb for free -- that's right, nothing, with a plan, which runs at the industry standard of $60 for 5GB of access a month. AT&T has several stepped-down usage plans starting at $20.
I have spent the past few months with the 881 to get a feel for how AT&T compares with other providers. My verdict? AT&T is as decent a choice as there is for staying connected on the road, but far from a perfect one.
The USBConnect card I tested installed easily on two Lenovo laptops, one running Microsoft Windows XP and the other Windows Vista. AT&T requires the use of a wireless management tool called AT&T Communications Manager. I am not a big fan of these third-party installation tools, since they can cause conflicts with some computers; but most operators have them now. So we must deal.
Once running, the AT&T 881 provides reasonable Web access for e-mail and Web surfing, but far from true broadband access you get from a landed connection. And coverage was what you would expect from today's hobbled American cell network. Yes, I got reasonable performance in and around New York City, Kansas City, Detroit, Upper Michigan and Maine. But there were drops in service. And for dedicated Web sessions where I had to get at my online project-management software -- say, in a hotel or remote location -- I found connectivity just too slow. I broke down and bought local in-room Wi-Fi access for about $10 a day, which over the course of a business trip could really add up.
Now, one major point: Actually deciding if this AT&T product is right for you and your business is not something you should rely on me -- or anybody else -- to decide. I know, it is ridiculous considering how sophisticated wireless networks are internationally, but shopping for cellular products here in these U.S. remains the complete guess fest it has been since the dawn of the cell-phone era.
As anybody who has ever shopped for a phone knows, there is no meaningful data for how well a given cell product will work in a given place. Yes, there are coverage maps. But they do not reflect actual performance because that is considered a trade secret by operators. Most wireless carriers are mature businesses that tend to be undercapitalized and profit-starved. So admitting feeble coverage would be the last way to manage ever-increasing investor impatience or regulatory wrath.
And while larger companies can pay for private testing firms to measure performance, small businesses like ours are left with exactly one way to buy a data plan: Get a unit that sounds reasonable, which AT&T's is. Try it out for companies' 30-day trial period. And keep the thing if it works. Trade it in if it does not. And then go to the next.
If you are like me and you routinely move through the three carriers to test performance, you will see that while these units can help you stay connected on the road, it is hardly a perfected art.
And as we all begin to migrate our businesses online, you will probably wonder, like I do, if the mobile connectivity question will be the deciding factor as to whether our troubled economy will be able to harness the magic of online business tools. As remarkable as it may sound, a robust wireless infrastructure capable of supporting Web-based business technology may simply be beyond us.