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Options for a Backup Internet Connection

written by: Lamar Stonecypher•edited by: Jean Scheid•updated: 8/7/2010

For those of us who make our livings online, any interruption of the internet connection for any length of time can actually be job-threatening. This article looks at backup internet connection strategies for home offices.

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    Depending on what your job is, maintaining the home office may include a fast PC or laptop, a phone and long distance plan, a scanner, and a printer. Most of us make an effort to back up our actual work, but have you even considered what you’ll do if you lose your internet connection for more than a few hours?

    No? Then let’s look at a few alternate ways to connect to the internet.

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    Wireless Internet Card

    A couple of years ago I purchased a Verizon Wireless PCMIA card to use on my notebook. I intended to use it when I traveled, and I did. In 2006, when thunderstorms put our phone service out for over a day, I ended up working on the laptop instead of my PC – because it could connect wirelessly.

    Next I purchased a Media Center PC that had built-in Wi-Fi. Since the notebook did, too, I could then make the laptop become a hotspot to share the internet connection with my desktop PC.

    Since then, I’ve changed both my notebook and my wireless card. The new “card" is a Verizon Wireless USB stick. It plugs directly into the front of my desktop and connects the same way the laptop does.

    It’s not inexpensive. The USB stick runs $69/mo standalone or $59/mo if you also have a cell phone with Verizon. Sprint lists the same USB stick for $59.99/mo.

    Note that not all areas get great reception with a wireless card. Be sure that if you purchase a wireless card to use with your notebook and as a backup internet source for your desktop, make use of that 30-day return policy the carriers offer and make sure it works plugged into your PC or notebook where you actually intend to use it.

    What kind of performance can be expected with a modern wireless card? The current Verizon cards run under the “EVDO rev. 1" protocol, which provides a third generation, or 3G, network. I tested the speed of the USB stick for this article at and saw 1,617 kb/s (kilobits per second) download, 464 up. This compares to DSL, which is my primary connection, at 646.4 KB/s (kilobytes per second) down and 52.3 up.

    So let’s convert kb/s to KB/s so we can directly compare. This amazing formula comes into play:

    ((1617 x 1000)/8)/1024 = 197.4 KB/s is the USB’s sticks download speed.

    Bear in mind that our government says that anything over 786 kb/s is broadband! That’s about 96 KB/s. (To put this into perspective, a 500 KB/s connection downloads a megabyte every 2 seconds. That same megabyte will take over 10 seconds at our government's minimal broadband speed.)

    Anyway, this shows that my wireless card is about one-third as fast as my DSL connection.

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    If your main internet connection is cable, a DSL connection could be used as a backup. As part of AT&T’s agreement when they merged with BellSouth, they consented to selling “naked DSL." This is DSL without a telephone plan. They will try their best to hide this from you or deny it when you inquire, but you can find it on their website. Naked DSL plans start at, you guessed it, 768 kb/s for $19.95/mo.

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    Satellite Internet

    This is probably the worst internet connection backup system. Unless you live in a place where there is literally no other choice, you wouldn’t want to use satellite internet as your primary access, much less your backup. It’s expensive, it’s slow, and it’s throttled.

    I’ll explain about throttling. Imagine a bucket beneath a faucet. As the water runs, the bucket fills. This represents your downloads – files, photos, and YouTube videos. Then imagine that bucket propped up on a couple of bricks, now with a small hole drilled into the bottom of it. That hole allows some of the water to drain out, extending the time before the bucket becomes overfilled and starts “spilling over."

    All ISPs do some sort of "network shaping." However, they do it by changing the size of the pipe itself, and the bucket is so large that most folks never have to think about. The throttling the other ISPs do is simply to limit the connection speed (max speed or "provisioned speed") to what the user agreement specifies. I can watch a network activity graph when I’m downloading and see it peaking right at the limit that I’m paying for.

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    In this second page, we continue to look at using a satellite connection as a backup Internet connection. We discuss FAP, or the "fair access plan" involved, and look at download speeds. We also look at using a landline (phone connection) as a backup which may be free from your DSL provider and at connecting to the Internet through a cell phone or PDA that has its own wireless connection.Backup Internet Connection Strategies for Home Offices, FAP, tether to phone, pdanet
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    Now back to the satellite plan. The problem is that the bucket, the amount of kilobytes of data that you can download, is pretty small. Once you’ve used up your bucket within a certain time, say one 24-hour period, you can only get what comes through the leak, and that’s much, much slower. It’s a dribble.

    Using HughesNet ™ as an example, their most basic plan gives the user a 200 MB bucket. The dribble is a sub-dialup speed. The refill time for the bucket is 24-hours. (What I’m calling a bucket and a drip, the satellite carriers call FAP, for “Fair Access Plan.")

    There are other problems with satellite internet. One is the amount of time it takes to send a stream of data from the earth to the satellite and down to the user. It can take a second or two to respond to a clinked link. And it’s expensive - $40 to $160 per month. You may even have to purchase the modem and dish.

    Something that I do find interesting about satellite internet is that most users report getting more than the advertised download speed. This varies a lot, though. In general, you can expect a satellite system to turn in between 500 and 2500 kb/s.

    Thus my theory is that if you actually needed satellite internet, you’d already have it. I would not recommend considering a satellite plan as a backup internet connection.

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    Yes, it’s dreadfully slow, but your DSL provider may already be providing a backup phone number to connect to the internet. If you’re lucky enough to have a PC or laptop with a modem, this could be considered a last resort (if you still have a dial tone). Check with your DSL provider to see if you have this option and a local access number.

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    PDA Phone

    Finally, if you have a smart phone (Windows Mobile, Palm, maybe others) and a data plan, you can tether your PC or laptop to the internet using the phone as your modem. This offers slightly less performance than a wireless card. Tethering usually makes sense only for folks who are online infrequently, like to check email or the company website. However, in an emergency, you can use your smart phone to provide a backup internet connection for your PC or notebook.

    Most carriers want to ding you a monthly fee for tethering (even though the ability to tether is already built into the phone). You can bypass this nuisance fee by using PDANet, an application that lets your PC or notebook use the internet connection on your Windows Mobile Smartphone or Palm OS Treo. Best of all, with both Treos and Smartphones, it works through the sync cable.

    And, sure, your carrier won’t like it if they find out, but in general, just don’t tell them, and everybody stays happy.

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    Further Reading by this Author

    • Broken Down on the Information Superhighway - In the war against terrorism and media piracy the lines have been drawn - or have they? Highly visible is the conflict between the pipe owners and the content pushers, but are secret deals and treaties that affect the global use of the Internet, music, and movies being made out of the public eye? Read this to find out about ACTA - the secretive, high-level anticounterfeiting trade agreement. Read this to find out who is really behind ACTA.
    • Taking it Home: Don't Give in to Procrastination - Telecommuting as an employee requires a certain level of devotion. If you find yourself putting off doing an unpleasant task day after day, you have a problem with procrastination. This article provides information about overcoming the tendency to put things off.
    • Windows Vista Backup - the Good, the Bad, and the Not so Hot - Your version of Vista determines what class of Windows Vista Backup Center you can use. Office, Enterprise and Ultimate users can backup their entire hard drive. Starter, Home Basic and Home Premium users can only create backups based on their document and file types.