Thanks to next-generation mobile broadband services, more business data are moving faster in more places than ever.
Except perhaps one: The wireless network in your shop.
Chances are good that your wireless network is probably still plugged into a traditional cable modem, phone-company DSL line or, if yours is a bigger business, a broadband digital data option.
But one start-up, CradlePoint, is offering cellular-company-provided data access in a fixed office. The Boise, Idaho-based company has developed a line of 4G/3G office routers that connect to Verizon's LTE super-fast cellular-data network, as well as networks from the other big carriers, including Sprint and AT&T, and others such as Cricket and Comcast.
CradlePoint's 4G/3G routers cleverly allow several users to share a single cell Web data account. We've been testing CradlePoint's MBR95, a wireless 4G/3G router, to get a sense of what this all-for-one, one-for-all wireless-data approach can -- and can't -- do for office wireless networks.
We found that, although it's unlikely users will want to ditch their cable Internet altogether, adding cellular capability to an office network can offer attractive benefits the small-business owner.
What You Get
CradlePoint's 4G routers offer what the company calls "always on" Internet. CradlePoint devices such as the MBR95, which retails at about $120, connect both a user's cellular modem and, if configured, traditional access options like a cable modem.
This way, the cellular network isn't so much an all-in-one data solution, but a reliable backup. In other words, if the cable Internet goes out, the cellular data network kicks in so that users won't have to wait for tech support to fix the problem before getting on with business.
For Ken Hosac, CradlePoint's director of product management, "always on" Internet is the company's killer app, especially as more business activities are done in the cloud.
"If you're starting your own business, you're not likely to go out and get large exchange server like in the old days. You're probably going to get a subscription to Google apps," he says. "Everything you use for your business, such as email, applications, is up in the cloud. So that network connection is even more important now."
What you might like: Users will like being able to share across-the-board access to 4G networks like Verizon's. When it's available, it's just plain fast. The MBR95 we tested allows for 32 different wireless connections, and some of CradlePoint's higher-end enterprise products allow for more than 100. CradlePoint supports a hefty number of modems and data carriers and its MBR95 supports 100-plus different devices and several dozen carriers.
We found the set-up largely foolproof: Boot up the modem, connect the router and then create your wireless network through an easy-to-use, first-time set-up tool. Web access fired right up. Expect to spend less than half an hour creating both a private wireless network and a public guest network, which blocks off access to administrative features. That is not bad.
Set up was so easy, you could take this unit with you when you travel.
What you might not like: You are on your own when it comes to paying for -- and managing -- data use through your service provider. In other words, you better know your data deal if you want to avoid overage charges.
If your data is capped, say at 5GB per month, which is Verizon's standard introductory plan, overage charges are $10 for every GB you go over. That's not terrible for single users. One GB is about 25 web pages per day, but mix in everybody else in the office and it can add up fast.
Though a business can make such limits work -- most firms obey some sort of data limit with a mobile data plan -- unless you actively track usage, which is a science in itself, a business generally does not want to rely exclusively on the cellular-data access.
Hosac says CradlePoint is planning to add a data-management feature this fall which will allow users to track their data and receive reminders or shut off the service when it gets close to running over.
Bottom line: Though it's far from the ultimate small-business data solution, CradlePoint is an intriguing option for the more mobile small business. If you do it right, and count your digital usage, you really can have a single office data-connectivity plan that works both in a fixed location and on the go.
And that is compelling enough capability to make it worth at least some techno trial and error.