ASK NBB #7: A Netbook For College

Today on ASK NBB we’re confronted with an question faced by many in the consumer netbook market – are mobile broadband plans worth it? Let’s hear the question.



I am a mom of a college student in the fall.  We are working on a very tight budget.  I am not quite sure how the netbooks work as far as accessing the internet.  I am sure it is all wireless but with Verizon there is the need to sign a contract and pay a monthly access fee.   With the others such as the Dell Mini is there a fee for the broadband monthly or are they wireless and can connect as long as you are in a wireless area?

I hope this question is understandable, I basically need to know what the costs are after we purchase the netbook of our choice.

Thank you,



As a student myself, I certainly can relate to your question. Internet access is crucial for kids in college, and netbooks are a fine way to get it – but you need to know what’s a good deal and what’s not.

The most important distinction here is that separating wireless internet and mobile broadband. Here’s how it breaks down:

Wireless internet

Wireless internet, commonly referred to as Wi-Fi, is what allows devices like notebooks, netbooks, and gaming consoles to connect to the internet where wireless service is available. Nearly all netbooks should have Wi-Fi capability, and the technical specification sheet of the netbook you’re going to buy might refer to it as a set of numbers (‘802.11 b/g wireless’, for example).

Wi-Fi Logo

Wi-Fi is an alternative to wired internet, which you need to plug into the wall. You can find it in homes, internet cafés, and coffee shops.

Many colleges will have wireless internet available anywhere on campus, while others have access everywhere except the middle of fields or in dorm rooms. If that’s the case, kids will use wired internet in the dorm room, often with cables supplied or rented out by the college. You or your child should contact Technology Services at the college to find out the specifics of your setup.

Mobile broadband

Mobile broadband, commonly referred to as 3G, is a type of wireless internet. However, mobile broadband is different from Wi-Fi in that it’s truly mobile – you can get it in your car, at the beach, or in a restaurant. Apple made the iPhone so successful because its go-anywhere 3G program allowed the iPhone to act as a GPS through Google Maps, a dictionary through, an encyclopedia through Wikipedia, or a technology blog through (haha!). There are still places where 3G internet goes dead (out of the country, or in an underground subway) but 3G is the most cost effective way to get internet just about anywhere.


However, college students will rarely use a 3G connection for their primary internet connection. Why? Wi-Fi and wired internet are cheaper and more reliable.

Many major companies like Verizon, AT&T, Cellular South and Virgin Mobile sell netbooks for dirt cheap with the purchase of a two-year mobile broadband contract. AT&T has sold netbooks for $50, and Verizon’s plan shells out netbooks for only a dollar. All of this sounds great, but some of these deals are sorely unbalanced. A Verizon mobile broadband plan involving the Compaq Mini, for example, will cost you as much as $1440 in two years. You’d be better off getting a MacBook notebook for that price!

Some mobile broadband plans also charge you for data use. One infamous case where this went wrong happened to a woman in Oklahoma, who was charged $5000 in overage fees for downloading too much stuff.

The Main Point

If you get your child a netbook with 3G internet, there are fees to worry about. I’m a huge fan of 3G from a technology standpoint, but it is often implemented in an altogether exorbitant way. If you’re on a budget, ditch mobile broadband, and get a netbook with Wi-Fi access.

I hope this information helps you out. Good luck with your netbook purchase, and good luck to your child in college!


Interested in getting your own question answered on ASK NBB? Here’s how! Be sure to check out ASK NBB #3 for my projections for the future of the netbook industry, or ASK NBB #4 for some discussion of the evolving Eee PC.


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