BlackBerry devices have revolutionized life for the remote worker. That is old news. Since its inception the BlackBerry has allowed for a mobile working environment. Whether it’s a traveling salesman, an office employee who wants to expand her role, or an entrepreneur working from home, the BlackBerry can be an integral device for keeping up with work while on the go. Over the past year or so we’ve seen massive growth in another mobility tool: mobile broadband services. These use data connections from cellular networks, much like the BlackBerry, to power laptops. We cover mobile broadband at our sister site, Wireless Internet Reviews, and today we’re going to go over the differences between those services and tethering your BlackBerry.
The four major U.S. carriers
For the purposes of this article we’re sticking with the four major U.S. cell phone providers: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Both mobile broadband aircards and BlackBerry tethering are available on all four networks. Here we’ll discuss the level of service and the differences between tethering your BlackBerry and buying an aircard. As you’ll see, each has its ups and downs. The first major difference to note among the carriers is the type of cellular service they provide. Verizon and Sprint both offer CDMA service, while AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM providers. This normally just delineates the services, in that a BlackBerry from T-Mobile cannot be used on the Verizon network and vise versa. As it pertains to mobile broadband, there are other differences which we will explore below.
GSM: 3G gives mobile broadband an advantage
Both T-Mobile and AT&T offer a number of BlackBerry devices, but only one of them is a 3G device, the BlackBerry Bold on AT&T. What this means for the consumer is that tethering a non-Bold BlackBerry from either carrier will result in slower speeds than mobile broadband, since mobile broadband is offered on the 3G network and the BlackBerry devices run on EDGE. AT&T LaptopConnect advertises download speeds of 700 Kbps to 1.7 Mbps, with upload speeds ranging from 600 Kbps to 1.2 Mbps. In contrast, their EDGE network provides speeds between 75 and 135 Kbps. Even at its fastest, EDGE doesn’t come close to 3G speeds, so tethering a non-Bold GSM BlackBerry will result in much slower speeds than an aircard. Tethering with a Bold should result in similar speeds to an aircard. This problem is compounded on T-Mobile because it offers no 3G BlackBerry models. They just recently started offering mobile broadband services, though they don’t quite reach the speeds of AT&T’s. This is because AT&T has upgraded (or is in the process of upgrading in some markets) to HSDPA, which is why its speeds are so far. T-Mobile is using UMTS, which provides speeds of 220 Kbps to 320 Kbps, with bursts clocking slightly faster. While this doesn’t look good when comparing T-Mobile to AT&T, it does mean something good for T-Mobile customers. Because their 3G network isn’t yet using HSDPA, the difference in speeds between mobile broadband and BlackBerry tethering isn’t as pronounced as it is on AT&T. In other words, users can simply tether their BlackBerry devices instead of buying a laptop card, since the difference isn’t large enough to justify such a purchase.
CDMA: Rev. A gives mobile broadband an edge
Both Verizon and Sprint operate EVDO networks, which by definition are 3G. So when you buy a BlackBerry from either of these providers, you’re getting a 3G device. Looking at the comparison above, it might seem like this gives BlackBerry users an edge, since they already have 3G devices. However, this is not exactly the case. There are currently two tiers of EVDO: Rev. 0 and Rev. A. The latter provides faster speeds, and have been mostly reserved for mobile broadband services. Verizon BroadbandAccess and Sprint’s mobile broadband offers Rev. A download speeds of 600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps, with bursts up to 2 Mbps, and 500 Kbps to 800 Kbps uplink. Unfortunately, no current BlackBerry models on either carrier works on the Rev. A upgrade. (edit: Thanks to the users who pointed out that the Storm is Rev. A.) They’re working with Rev. 0 speeds, though those aren’t bad. Users can experience speeds between 400 Kbps and 700 Kbps download and 50 Kbps to 100 Kbps upload. The differences are there for sure, but they’re not nearly as pronounced as the differences between EDGE and 3G. (There are rumors that the BlackBerry Tour will feature Rev. A. We’ll check in once the official announcement is made.)
Convenience vs. Cost vs. Speed
Clearly, tethering your BlackBerry device for mobile broadband provides a level of convenience. After all, you already have the equipment. At that point it’s just a matter of making sure your BlackBerry has tethering capabilities. Most do, including all new models, but some will require the aid of a third-party program. For starters, you can check out our guide to using your BlackBerry as a modem. This should give the basics. Mac users can try pairing the BlackBerry with Bluetooth. For those who don’t have compatible models, you can try MobiShark. As far as speed goes, this one goes almost universally to mobile broadband. On GSM the difference is vast, since most GSM BlackBerry devices operate on EDGE, which doesn’t hold a flame to 3G speeds. On EVDO the difference isn’t quite as big, but mobile broadband still realizes faster connections, both for upload and download, than a tethered BlackBerry. So that’s one for tethering, one for an aircard. Cost is going to be the main difference. BlackBerry starts with an edge here, since it doesn’t require the purchase of any further equipment. A broadband modem can cost anywhere from $30 to hundreds. Then it’s onto plans. Each carrier is going to offer services differently, which makes it difficult to break everything down. For instance, Verizon offers bundled 450 minutes and BlackBerry data for $79.99 per month, but it appears BIS users can sign up for the $39.99 voice plan and add BIS for $29.99 per month. Tethering is $15 more than that. T-Mobile has a $59.99 webConnect data plan, but doesn’t appear to charge extra for BlackBerry tethering. So cost is going to be dependent on carrier, but in general it’s a bit cheaper to tether your BlackBerry, rather than to add mobile broadband services.
Which carrier has the best mobile broadband?
As we close out this post, some might be wondering which carrier provides the best broadband speeds. The folks at Gizmodo tested service from Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T in eight major markets across the U.S. From their results, it appears that Sprint offers the fastest speeds, and that both AT&T and Verizon are on equal footing just below them. Strange that Sprint offers greater speeds, though not at all a surprise that they’ve been using this study in national advertising campaigns. It’s not the highest in all markets, but in major markets like NYC it has an edge. There’s plenty of information to digest here, and hopefully readers will gain something by reading it. As we become more and more mobile with our work we’re going to need better connectivity options. Mobile broadband can provide such an experience, and if you so choose, your BlackBerry can be a part of that as well.