Using Cell Phones as Modems

Cell phone companies love advertising their high-speed data networks, but who wants to surf the ‘Net on a cell phone?

The screens are tiny, graphics are useless, and don’t even get me started on what a nightmare it is to type in a web address using a numeric keypad.
Instead, why not connect the cell phone to a laptop, and surf with a real computer? Telecommuters can work from anywhere with a change of scenery. House-hunters can drive around neighborhoods while surfing the Houston Association of Realtors free site at and see a home’s price, square footage, interior photos, and more, all without getting out of the car.
(Hats off to the Realtors for such an extremely user-friendly, useful site.) Traveling executives can check their email in the hotel without hassling over finding the right dialup numbers.

Three things are required – a cell phone provider, a cable, and a piece of software.

Picking A Provider

Verizon Wireless’ high speed Internet is called Express Network. Since June 2003, they’ve included it for free with most plans: the data minutes simply come out of the phone plan the same as voice minutes. A $79 unlimited monthly plan is also available for Internet addicts.

Sprint’s data service is called Vision, and it’s gone through a few changes since its release. Sprint initially offered unlimited data for free with most plans, which made sense from a cell phone provider’s point of view because users don’t do much surfing on their cell phones, regardless of the price. Tiny cell phone screens just don’t lend themselves to high bandwidth Internet use. However, users quickly caught on that the unlimited data also extended to laptops hooked up to Sprint phones, and Internet chat rooms buzzed with the news that fairly high speed Internet was available for the price of the cheapest Sprint cell plan.

As a result, Sprint changed their tune and now puts stiffer language in their contracts, specifying that the unlimited data only applies to cell phone use, not devices hooked up to the phones, and that there’s a cap on the number of data minutes used per month. (I always get a kick out of contracts like that: “Sure, it’s unlimited, but if you use more than 800 minutes per month, we’re going to charge extra. There’s a limit to unlimited, you know.”)

Making The Connection

Cell phone vendors sell a wireless data connection kit for most models of cell phones. The kit includes the software and the cable to connect the phone to a laptop, and typically goes for $40-$70. You can get generic kits a lot cheaper from auctions on Ebay, but when you run into problems with the connection, the cell phone companies treat you like Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible. Not only do they disavow any knowledge of your actions.

I’m a gambler, so for my Verizon LG VX-10 phone, I picked up a connection kit on Ebay for less than $20, including shipping. Just go to, and in the Search box, type in the phone’s make and model and the word “data”. If dozens of data cable offers don’t show up, you’re probably misspelling your phone’s make and model. (Well, you might even be misspelling the word “data”, but I guess I have to give you some credit.)

I took a different route for my Sprint phone, a Samsung A500. sells a $25 USB data & charging cable that retracts for easy storage in a laptop bag. I carry enough junk, and self-wind-up cables are a huge plus in my book. Boxwave’s cable for my particular phone not only carries data, but also recharges the phone while it’s plugged into my laptop – which means I don’t have to carry a separate cell phone charger. That alone is worth the purchase price.

Boxwave doesn’t include the connection software, however, so I selected SnapDialer from It’s a third-party cellular connection program that works with most 3g cell phones and providers.

That’s where the troubles started: the combination of the Samsung phone, Boxwave cable, and FutureDial software worked the first time I plugged it in, but never again afterwards. Sprint, Boxwave, and FutureDial all point fingers at each other and Microsoft, which leads me to suggest that you’re best off buying the all-inclusive kit from the cell phone company directly. I had to test the Sprint network using a coworker’s phone and connectivity kit.

The Verdict

After using both providers in Houston and Dallas for a month, I’ve found that Verizon’s Express Network high-speed coverage is outstanding, while Sprint’s coverage rarely meets the advertised speeds. I can typically transfer data at 60-70 kbps minimum over Verizon, while Sprint struggles to beat 20 kbps. For what it’s worth, I’ve had similar experiences with the voice coverage as well: the Verizon calls are usually clearer and have less dropped signals. It doesn’t appear to be related to the model of cellular phone, either, because several of my coworkers also maintain Verizon phones despite having free Sprint accounts from the office. We’ve all got different phone models, but report similar signal experiences.

While I’m enamored with the Sprint phone and the clever retractable cable that doubles as a charger, it doesn’t make up for the Verizon network’s quicker data speeds and the limits on the “unlimited” Sprint data use.