Mobile survival guide: Top tips for staying connected

Here are tips for weathering your worst-case scenario.

Picture this: You're sitting down in between meetings on a business trip, and you need to send a few quick e-mail messages and an image or two. You pull out your handy-dandy USB 3G Internet dongle, but no luck. Undaunted, you start looking around for an open Wi-Fi network, but no dice. Even your smartphone Internet is mysteriously down. Is this a nightmare? Nope--just another day for a business traveler lost in the wilds of mobile Internet.

Don't let this happen to you. Check out our road-tested tips for getting your work done by any Internet connection necessary.

Slow mobile broadband? Try switching spots--even if you're getting a great signal: Getting five bars on your mobile-broadband signal doesn't necessarily mean that you'll get the best data speeds, especially if you're in an area with lots of cellular-network traffic. Although the signal-strength indicator does tell you how strong your connection is to the nearest signal tower, it doesn't tell you how busy that tower is.

That means that you (and everyone else in the area) could have a splendid connection to a tower that is so overloaded it can't send data along the network fast enough. Oddly, sometimes your signal strength will be worse, but your overall speeds will be better since you're connecting to a tower that's less busy overall.

Bring your own gear for hotel-room Wi-Fi: Hotels love to advertise their free in-room Wi-Fi. However, the mere existence of Wi-Fi doesn't guarantee that it will work at the level you need it to. If you want to ensure that your room is covered, you'll need to bring your own Wi-Fi router and insist on a room at a hotel that is wired for ethernet. Don't forget the power strip, too, or else you might have to choose between wireless Internet access and your room's lighting.

If you're leery about lugging all of that gear around, remember this: Your room's ethernet could be a 1-foot-long cable sticking out of the landline phone. You might be able to get your work done with your laptop on your bedside table, but your back will never forgive you.

Test your speed before uploading large files: If you need to send a few large files back to home base, try out a few different services before starting the upload in earnest. After all, your mobile ISP or hotel IT administrator might have blocked or throttled certain services. Another concern: What seems like the most direct file-transfer method (uploading to your company's FTP server, for example) might actually be bogged down with unnecessary intermediaries such as a VPN connection that could reduce the overall speed.

While uploading a video file from a hotel ethernet connection, I found that I got only 20 kilobits per second from our FTP server, while Dropbox bumped me up to 50 kbps and MediaFire managed 80 kbps. Even though I wasn't directly transferring the video to the home office, using MediaFire instead of our in-house FTP saved time for everyone involved.

Use protection on open Wi-Fi hotspots: The time you save by logging in to the first unencrypted Wi-Fi hotspot you encounter doesn't compare to the risk you take if someone shady sniffs your password or hijacks your Gmail session and steals all your personal info. You can reduce your risk by using utilities such as Hotspot Shield and configuring your Web apps to use HTTPS whenever possible, but you need to take those steps before you log in to the unprotected Wi-Fi spot. Read "How to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi" for more security tips.

Come down from the cloud: It's easier than ever to keep your work in the cloud without disrupting a traditional work environment--that is, until someone pulls the plug. Make sure to have a solid set of offline tools so that you can still work when you're disconnected, and keep local copies of anything business-critical (your schedule, for example). Maintaining a record can be as simple as saving a Google Doc as a Word doc, or taking a quick screenshot of your to-do list on your smartphone before you head to the airport.

If you depend on Google services, grab Google Gears. Even though Google effectively abandoned it more than a year ago, it still allows you to access your Google Docs, Gmail, Google Calendar, and a few third-party apps like Remember the Milk without an Internet connection. It's already built into Chrome, but it also supports Firefox and Internet Explorer in Windows, and Firefox in OS X.

Bring a better Wi-Fi stumbler: Still using Windows' built-in Wi-Fi panel in the taskbar? Before you hit the road, pick up a more powerful utility such as NetStumbler or InSSIDer. Unlike Windows' built-in Wi-Fi signal meter, these apps will give you a good look at which networks have a consistently strong signal over time, which networks are on overlapping channels, and so on. This information is particularly useful when several usable networks are in the area and you want to know which one will give you the best reception without having to try them all out one by one.

Try to find the Wi-Fi access point: Even the fastest Wi-Fi cards can't help you if you're too far from the access point itself. Try to find the actual hardware access point itself, and sit near it. In public spaces, check near any labeled "charging station" areas and scan the ceiling for any boxes labeled with networking equipment brands (Cisco, D-Link, Netgear, and so on). Coffee shops often have them in plain view near any phone/ethernet wiring. If you can't find it, you can use the Wi-Fi scanners mentioned above to check your signal strength while walking around the room, though you'll look like you're using your PC to dowse for water.

Starbucks is your best friend: Regardless of what you think about the chain's coffee, you'll be elated to find a Starbucks when you're desperately hunting for Internet access. The same goes for McDonald's, Panera, and pretty much any hotel lobby. Even public libraries usually have free Wi-Fi--whether they're open or not. You can check out free Wi-Fi databases such as OpenWiFiSpots.com before you leave for your trip, but the listings aren't always accurate or up-to-date, so you're probably better off just noting where your coffee-shops-of-last-resort are. If you're really worried, invest in a membership with some of the more common Wi-Fi providers, such as T-Mobile HotSpot.

Have your own tips for disconnected road warriors? Share them in the comments!

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