Staying Connected When You Travel

Thomas Fox is president of Tech Experts, southeast Michigan’s leading small business computer support company.

Summertime is vacation time for a lot of business owners, and keeping in touch with the office can be a challenge while you’re on the road. Here are some tips to stay in touch and connected – but only if you want to!

Cellular and mobile broadband
The single biggest change in mobile technology is the ubiquity of relatively high speed data service. Coverage has increased significantly, and speeds rival that of low-end landline connections.

Phones themselves have evolved – many are now small, powerful computers that are constantly connected to the Internet.

Tethering is the act of connecting your phone to your computer so the computer can use the phone’s Internet connection. Sometimes inaccurately described as a “modem” in these situations, the phone simply acts as a gateway connecting your PC to the mobile data network.

Not all phones or providers support tethering. When available, it usually uses a USB cable to connect the computer to the mobile phone.

An option that’s becoming more popular recently is the ability of some phones to act as a Wifi hotspot. When enabled, the phone itself becomes a Wifi access point, and laptops and other Wifi-enabled devices can connect to the Internet just as they would via any other hotspot.

Cellular Hardware
If you don’t have a phone capable of sharing its Internet connection, another option are devices dedicated to providing Internet connectivity to your computer.

Many mobile providers offer USB devices that act as dedicated interfaces to the Internet using the mobile network.

Drawbacks of mobile broadband
There are two primary drawbacks to mobile broadband: Coverage, speed and cost. While decent voice service is nearly universal in all but the most remote locations in the US, good data coverage is a gamble.

It isn’t uncommon for one carrier to have “four bars” of coverage in an area, and another to have barely any, so if you travel much, particularly to more rural or remote areas, coverage matters. You can easily try out different carriers by purchasing “reloadable” service on that carrier – if the service doesn’t work, simply cancel without penalty.

Cost is another limiting factor to mobile connectivity. Most smartphones include some kind of base connectivity charge in their monthly fee, adding $20, $30, or more per month to the basic cost of the phone.

Free Wifi hotspots
At the other end of the cost spectrum are the networks of free open Wifi hotspots that you can find across the country.

Be it Starbucks, McDonald’s, local coffee houses, restaurants, bookstores, and more, many retail businesses provide Wifi as perk of doing business with them.

If your travels take you along routes populated with these types of establishments, you can travel from one to the other, taking advantage of their connectivity as you go. While technically free, the assumption is that you’re a customer – so at least buy a cup of coffee.

The drawbacks here include security and possibly speed. Depending on how heavily used the location is, your speed of access may depend on how many other users you’re sharing the connection with.