Planes, Trains … and Soon Automobiles

The ability to computer on the move is becoming more of a necessity than a luxury, regardless of your viewpoint on whether that should be the case. The traveling workforce needs a pipeline to the Web, while the rest of us just want that connection.

One way to deal with maintaining open lines of communication is through your mobile phone’s data connection. There are drawbacks, including data caps, reception (particularly in buildings or other enclosed areas), and expense.

Another way to tackle the problem is via wi-fi, otherwise known as a wireless local area network, in which users can share a connection to the internet via radio broadcast technology. As long as you are within range of the broadcast signal, wi-fi represents a solid connection. While few devices (read, smartphones and some tablets) offer the ability to pull data over the cellular network, most small and large computing devices have the capability of connecting via wi-fi.

This is all well and good within your own home, where you can easily set up a WLAN off of your own internet connection, But what about when you travel? Some of the best downtime for multi-tasking is during transit – either in the station waiting for public transportation or while en route.

More and more companies recognize the need for widescale wi-fi access and many afford a wireless network for a fee. But, if you  are like me, you would rather suss out the free option.

Airports were among the first to offer wi-fi, but not all of the options were free. To locate airports offering free wi-fi, check out this list updated by users (link here).  Even awesome -er than airport wi-fi, airplane wi-fi is a bit more recent – I took advantage of a free wi-fi offer on Delta last Fall and, I have to say, the ability to surf the web at 30,000 feet was really, REALLY cool. Again, not all airlines offer free inflight wi-fi. But, you can at least check out which airlines offer infilght wi-fi at all at Trip Advisor’s Seat Guru site (link here). On a lengthy flight, the cost might be worth it.

My local commuter rail train, run by the MBTA, offers free wi-fi access in specially-marked train cars. And now, Amtrak has just announced that the Acela will be offering free wi-fi nationwide (link here). After demoing the service in the Northeast corridor and learning that close to 40% of passengers were logging on, they have spread the goodness to everyone. Tip of the hat to them! If you are at all interested in how they do it, check this quote from the article linked above:

Each train has a central system housed in a ‘brain car’ comprising up to eight data modems using all four major US cellular carriers; Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. A 5GHz wireless network connects the brain car to the rest of the train, providing speeds of 12-22Mbps between carriages with approximately 3.5Mbps total bandwidth available for passenger Wi-Fi connections to the Internet. The bottleneck in any train-bound system will always be the backhaul, so AmtrakConnect uses a quality-of-service system that segregates passenger traffic from on-board system traffic, and uses content filtering to manage bandwidth on a per user basis and block certain material including streaming video. The on-train system is augmented by multi-megabit trackside and in-station wireless broadband that offloads traffic from the cellular connections to platform-based infrastructure when a train is at the station.

And, top choice for most space-age option has to be in-car wi-fi! Several months ago, Ford announced that the next generation of its Sync system will permit Ford owners to plug a USB modem directly into a car’s built-in Wi-Fi, creating broadband Internet access for all passengers. Wow! iPad anyone? There are aftermarket providers too: Autonet Mobile and Waav design similar systems for cars. These gizmos may require a subscription based on the amount of data purchased – anywhere from $30 to $60 per month. It could still be a decent option if you travel a lot by car and aren’t planning to pick up the specific Sync-equipped Ford model anytime soon.

Or, you could just move to Ponca City, Oklahoma, where the entire city is wired for sound.

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