Embedded 3G: What's Inside Counts

A 3G PC card modem is roughly the size of a credit card, and when it comes to the cost of owning the modem, it might as well be one: Break the antenna, and a new one will set you back $50. Break the card itself, and it's likely to run $200 or more, not counting the cost of shipping a new one out to wherever the employee is traveling, or the productivity wasted while waiting for the replacement card to arrive.

"Thirty percent of our break fix is those cards," says Jim Lyman, VP of e-commerce and customer connections at Edward Don & Co., a distributor of food-service equipment and supplies.

In fact, damage-related costs alone are a compelling reason for enterprises to consider "embedded" laptops, which feature a built-in 3G modem rather than a PC card poking out the side. That's one key finding in the debut issue of Unstrung Enterprise Insider, 3G-Enabled Laptops: Good Deal or Bad Bargain?, which looks at the key issues that CIOs and IT managers should consider when assessing these products.

Another way to assess the business case is performance: Many laptop vendors and carriers claim that embedded laptops offer faster throughput and more reliable connections. That's partly because, unlike a plug-in modem, an embedded module can be tweaked and shielded to ward off interference from the laptop's components, especially its processor.

So what are the downsides? The obvious one is being stuck with a single wireless technology and carrier for the lifecycle of the laptop. Hence the importance of picking a embedded laptop that's designed to allow repair and replacement of the module – if not in-house, then at least by the laptop's manufacturer.

This flexibility is key, because there are a couple of upcoming 3G technologies that are a good fit for enterprises. One example is CDMA2000 1xEV-DO Rev. A, which has upload speeds as fast as 1.8 Mbit/s. The current version, Rev. 0, musters only 153 kbit/s upstream, even though it supports downloads north of 2 Mbit/s. So for enterprises with employees who send large files as often as they receive them, Rev. A may be a better fit.

The catch is that for both embedded modems and their PC-card kin, Rev. A won't be available as an upgrade, such as by loading new firmware onto a Rev. 0 product; instead, you'll have to replace the entire modem. Hence the value of having access to the embedded module, rather than being locked into whatever technology was state-of-the-art when you ordered the laptop.

The good news is that at least some laptop vendors recognize the importance of flexibility. "[Our] module can be replaced," says Matt Wagner, senior manager of security and wireless product marketing at HP Inc. (NYSE: HPQ). "Longer term, I expect end-user upgradeability or installability to become a more important element of many of our notebook designs."

Until then, caveat emptor.

— Tim Kridel, Contributing Analyst, Unstrung Enterprise Insider

This report, 3G-Enabled Laptops: Good Deal or Bad Bargain?, is available as part of an annual subscription (6 bimonthly issues) to Unstrung Enterprise Insider, priced at $1,295. Individual reports are available for $900. For more information, or to subscribe, please visit: www.unstrung.com/enterprise.

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