3GIf you’ve considered buying an Apple iPad 2 or an Amazon Kindle, confusion over Wi-Fi vs. 3G Internet service may have stalled your purchasing decision. Or, maybe you have a smartphone capable of switching between Wi-Fi and 3G service, but you don’t really know the difference. What’s going to cost you more? Do you have any alternatives?

What is 3G mobile Internet access?

3G is short for third generation mobile telecommunications, which is a set of international standards for wireless telecommunication. Because 3G has more bandwidth than its predecessors, it enables more than wireless phone calls. Access to 3G can also give mobile devices access to the Internet, mobile TV, video calling and more. And access to 3G depends on the coverage area of your 3G carrier (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc).

Remember that episode of your favorite mystery/thriller series where they found the bad guy by tracking his mobile phone activity? That’s because 3G mobile devices work by linking to cellular towers. Those towers communicate with global positioning systems (GPS). By triangulating the cell towers a mobile user accesses, you can estimate their location. These location services have been integrated into many popular mobile apps like Google Maps, FourSquare, Twitter, coupon delivery systems and more.

What is Wi-Fi Internet access?

Wi-Fi accesses wireless Internet service in a different way. If 3G is an evolution of cellular technology, then Wi-Fi is an evolution of computer networks. Wi-Fi spots, commonly called “hot spots,” can provide secured or unsecured access to the Internet. If you have a wireless router in your home, you may be using Wi-Fi enabled mobile devices to access the Internet from your bed, couch or front porch. Since you don’t want your neighbors “borrowing” your bandwidth, you probably (and should) require a password to connect to your Wi-Fi.

Where else do you use Wi-Fi? It’s commonly available at coffee shops, hotels, workplaces, book stores, libraries and more. Some places used to charge for it, and some hotels still do, but in most places it is free as long as you accept terms and conditions or watch a brief advertisement. The key to unlock all of this free Internet access is a Wi-Fi enabled device.

Deciphering mobile devices

Mobile 3G devices, like the iPhone and iPad (Wi-Fi + 3G), can easily switch between Wi-Fi and 3G Internet access. If you don’t have an unlimited data plan, then finding Wi-Fi hotspots can be a great way to save on monthly data service charges. However, if you buy a Wi-Fi-enabled mobile device, it won’t work on 3G networks, and you can’t buy a 3G service plan that lets your Wi-Fi device access 3G networks. The hardware simply isn’t there.

Like 3G mobile phones, other 3G mobile devices provide the broadest coverage. In exchange, you’ll pay more for the device and more for the 3G service. There is one major exception: in the U.S., the Kindle, builds the cost of 3G, or “Whispernet,” access into its downloadable media. Unlike mobile phone plans, most 3G data-only plans don’t require a contract, so you can activate them whenever you want and pay for the service one month at a time. But, ask your provider about activation (or re-activation) fees.

A new option: mobile hotspots

Mobile hotspots (sometimes available right on your smart phone) or MiFi devices use 3G networks, so their pricing structure is similar to other 3G data plans. Once you connect your mobile hotspot to the 3G network, you have created your own mini Wi-Fi access area. You can (usually) simultaneously connect up to five Wi-Fi devices to your personal Wi-Fi hot spot, which was created by accessing a 3G network.

The idea is that you put a MiFi or mobile hotspot device on a table then you connect your Wi-Fi laptop, your Wi-Fi iPad, your Wi-Fi Kindle plus your friend’s Netbook and iPod touch—all through one 3G network connection and one 3G data service plan.

3G Wi-Fi Diagram

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It’s really the best of both worlds—you will save money by buying the Wi-Fi version of mobile devices instead of the 3G versions. You’ll also save money by buying only one 3G data plan for connecting all your mobile devices. Remember that by accessing the Internet via 3G, your access extends to wherever your provider has coverage, so you can create your own Wi-Fi hotspot wherever you can access 3G.

So what’s the downside? Using Wi-Fi devices on a mobile hotspot or MiFi could interfere with GPS-based location services like finding nearby restaurants for dinner or getting coupons pushed to your device. You should still be able to set your location manually for things like searching maps, and watch for other workarounds as MiFi and other mobile hotspot devices become more popular.

Looking beyond 3G

Some mobile hotspot devices provide 4G network access—the 4th generation of mobile telecommunications, which is blazing fast. It’s currently available in limited areas, but the newer network is growing rapidly. If you have access to a 4G network, connecting Wi-Fi devices to a 4G mobile hotspot will actually be faster than directly connecting to a 3G network with a native 3G device.