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How to stay connected in unconnected places

Many of us whizz our way to the relatives’ for the holidays, carrying with us a plethora of electronics. Sadly, on arrival, we find that our cousin canceled cable service because of cost, snow downed a DSL drop, or mom and stepdad’s new house in the woods is in a cellular coverage shadow—no 3G nor 2G signal to be found for miles!

What can you do? Prepare before you go for the worst-case scenario. There have never been more options for acquiring high-speed Internet access even when a feed isn’t convenient. That counts for your old family home or a hotel.

(Tip: If you’re planning to rely on mobile broadband, visit your carrier’s site and use their coverage map to see if you can receive high-speed data where you’ll be. These maps are estimates, not guarantees, but it’s still a good way to avoid unpleasant surprises—such as entirely empty areas of coverage.)

Use your iPhone as a personal hotspot

The best mobile modem is the one you have with you. If we know our demographics, you probably own an iPhone, which has included a software-based Personal Hotspot since iOS 4. You can plug a laptop in via USB to the Dock connector, or use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi from laptops and mobile devices (including other iOS devices) to connect back to the Internet. Many models of smartphones running Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, and other platforms also offer USB tethering and a “mobile hotspot” feature for Wi-Fi.

The cost for tethering and a mobile hotspot isn’t cheap, but it’s not precisely ridiculous, either. The four major U.S. carriers each have tethering/mobile hotspot plans for any phone that can manage it; all but T-Mobile, of course, offer these for the iPhone models that they sell. (The iPhone 3GS can only tether via USB and share over Bluetooth. The iPhone 4 and 4S can use those methods plus Wi-Fi. Other phones vary by tethering and wireless sharing methods.)

For background and links to pricing at these carriers, visit:

See my instructions for Using the Personal Hotspot on your AT&T iPhone here or Using the Personal Hotspot on your Verizon iPhone. Each carrier also has a step-by-step guide on its site, and Apple has a simplified set of instructions as well.

Bring a mobile router

You can still use mobile broadband without relying on your phone. This is especially useful if you want to provide access to multiple people, such as members of your family, without being tied to any one person’s phone. Cellular routers—the best known of which is the MiFi—relay a cellular data signal over Wi-Fi, creating a portable hotspot. We reviewed the Virgin Mobile version ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) last year.

You’ll find the best prices and least contract commitment with T-Mobile and Virgin Mobile, which is a subsidiary of Sprint Nextel. T-Mobile sells the 4G Mobile Hotspot, which can work at raw rates up to 42 Mbps in parts of the country where T-Mobile offers those highest speeds, for $129.99 either directly or through Amazon.com. It’s a prepaid unit, in that you then purchase units of service to activate as “broadband passes.” T-Mobile offers $10 for 100 MB used within seven days of a pass being activated, $30 for 1 GB over 30 days, or $50 for 3 GB over 30 days. If you run out of data, you purchase a new pass.

Virgin Mobile offers the $150 MiFi 2200, which works only at Sprint’s 3G raw rate of about 3 Mbps. Virgin sells prepaid access as well: $10 for 100 MB over 10 days, $20 for 500 MB in a month, or $50 for 2.5 GB during a month, after which service may be ratcheted down to 256 Kbps for the remainder of the plan period.

You can also opt to get a USB modem from one of many carriers, but these nearly always (except with Virgin Mobile) require a two-year commitment or an outright expensive purchase. You also then have to have a computer turned on and using Internet Sharing to provide access beyond the laptop.

Deal with a distant signal

Your parents opted for broadband, but the modem is at one end of the house, and your childhood room, where you’re crammed into a bed a foot too short for you, is at the other. Alternatively, you’re now sleeping in the basement with wedges of concrete between you and an upstairs Wi-Fi router.

Bring a base station The easiest way to deal with a weak broadband signal is to bring a Wi-Fi base station of your own with you. Since you’ll be away from home, you could extract your own router, but Apple’s AirPort Extreme is rather large, and a Time Capsule likely contains your backups. If you don’t have a spare, consider Apple’s $99 AirPort Express ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ). This easily portable router is a bit of a splurge, but you can sometimes find a refurbished one in the Apple store. On a recent check, a fully warrantied previously owned (and then fixed) AirPort Express cost just $69.

The Airport Express has just a single ethernet port, so unless the broadband modem you’ll be using has multiple ethernet ports—and not all do—you’ll also need an ethernet switch. 10/100 Mbps or 10/100/1000 Mbps switches cost less than $25 for a 4- or 5-port unit. While you’re at it, spring for a couple of Ethernet cables, as well.

You have two scenarios. If the broadband modem has a built-in Ethernet switch, you can just plug the Wi-Fi base station into one of those ports. If it only has a single LAN Ethernet jack, plug an Ethernet cable from that jack into your own Ethernet switch, and then also plug the base station in your Ethernet switch.

Opt for the electrical system But what if, as in our speculative case, the modem is at one end of the house and you want to curl up at the other, and the signal won’t reach? Try powerline networking. This technology pushes networking mojo over home electrical wiring. Because the signal is carried on a particular power phase—don’t ask, it gets way too complicated—you can only expect outlets that share the same circuit breaker to carry the signal efficiently. Other outlets might work at a fraction of the maximum speed: megabits instead of 100s of megabits per second. But, that could still be faster than the broadband connection.

You can get older 85 Mbps powerline gear inexpensively (well under $50 each), while the newest 200 Mbps and 500 Mbps models are generally pricier. See our review of the $75 MacWireless 200 Mbps Powerline Network Adapter, ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ). You need two adapters: one to plug in near the modem, where you may need an Ethernet switch to run between the modem and the Ethernet jack on the powerline wall wart; and the other near your base station elsewhere in the house.

Explore your options outside of home

Your fallback option is the local or chain café, restaurant, or bookstore. While Barnes & Noble, Starbucks, and McDonald’s have free Wi-Fi across the United States, stores may be crowded during the holidays. You can patronize smaller shops, which may require a purchase (and why not?) in exchange for less crowding and cozier surroundings. You can use JiWire’s Wi-Fi Finder iOS app to search and map spots, as well as Devicescape’s EasyWifi website and iOS app. Both are free.

I’ve found on recent trips to parts unknown (to me), such as central Oregon, Yelp was a great guide not just to food but also to whether Wi-Fi was available. Reviews help you determine whether you’ll be welcome to squat with a cup of joe and a muffin for a few hours, or if you’ll get the evil eye.

Many public institutions in towns large and small have Wi-Fi as well, including city halls and public libraries. They may be closed during the holiday season, however.

Relax a little

One of the joys of travel is supposed to be breaking your routines. It’s true that many employers want you to stay connected even when taking time off, but if you can’t make your internet access work, consider taking this as a sign. It may be time to slow down and hit the off button.

Glenn Fleishman, a senior contributor to Macworld, once owned a 110 baud modem. He misses it still. He’s the author most recently of Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Network, updated for Lion. You can find him on Twitter @glennf.


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