Wi-Fi is great…when it works. Overall, Wi-Fi hotspots aren’t universally reliable—in other words, I never know where I’m actually going to be able to get a signal. Thankfully, the cell phone carriers have been offering a solution that access-hungry users need to know about: 3G data cards.For months, I have been praising—at the top of my lungs—the virtues of high-speed, 3G data cards from Verizon, Cingular, and Sprint. These cards go into the PC slot of your laptop and use the high-speed networks of cell carriers to give you broadband speeds anywhere there’s a mobile signal. You can also use some PDA phones, such as the Treo 700, as an EVDO modem. If you live in a major urban area, you’ll get about 10 times a dial-up connection. In more rural areas, you can still surf, but at slower speeds that are about three times a dial up connection. The easiest (though also the priciest) option is to just get one of the new laptops from Lenovo (the Thinkpad series) or Panasonic (the Toughbook 74 and the new W5, pictured), which have EVDO-capability built right in.

This means I no longer have to worry about whether there’s Wi-Fi or not in the airport lounge where I’m trapped due to flight delays. I also don’t have to spend the lousy $6.95 for one-hour’s Wi-Fi network use, buy cards with codes on them, search around for a strong network, or any of the other countless little hassles and expenses that come with trying to get online with Wi-Fi.

It seems as though not a day goes by without a full-page newspaper ad by Sprint or Verizon advertising their Broadband Connection and BroadbandAccess services, respectively, and yet, I don’t run into many people outside of tech circles who actually use these thing. And that’s too bad, because they actually work. I can’t say that about a lot of tech—that it actually works. My experiences with Sprint and Verizon have so far been seamless—nary a glitch and I’ve been using their cards for months (in fact, I’m using Sprint’s card right now).

My limited experience with Cingular’s card was a little less flawless. I wasn’t able to get the fast speeds that I got with Sprint or Verizon during a recent airport lounge wait, but I’ll follow up with a more extensive review in the future. What the Cingular cards—in particular the Option GlobeTrotter GT MAX LaptopConnect card—have over the Sprint and Verizon cards is the ability to get a signal in GSM zones with mid-speed GPRS and high-speed, 3G UMTS networks (essentially, using networks around the rest of the world except for South Korea and Japan, for those of you who want to use these cards when they travel internationally).

The next step for these cards is even more bandwidth. Good news for those who like down download video and load-up graphics-intensive sites—Verizon will be upgrading download speeds by up to 50 percent some time this fall, according to an earlier post by Chris Null. For an overview of the EVDO services, check out these posts from Becky Worley, Robin Raskin, and Dory Devlin.