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What Is an Aircard?

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Question: What Is an Aircard?
Answer: An aircard is a type of wireless broadband modem used for connecting to cellular networks. Aircards provide roaming access to the Internet from mobile computers outside the range of Wi-Fi hotspots. They may also be used as an alternative to home dial up Internet service in rural areas.

Types of Aircards

Several manufacturers produce wireless network modems including Kyocera, Novatel, Option and Pantech. In recent years, however, the term "aircard" has become associated most closely with the Sierra Wireless AirCard brand of wireless modem products.

Cellular network service providers typically bundle (and sometimes rebrand) compatible wireless modems together with their service contracts. In the U.S., for example, both AT&T and Verizon utilize Sierra Wireless products even though these may be called "AT&T AirCard" and "Verizon AirCard."

The Sierra Wireless AirCard family includes wireless modems in three standard form factors:

Wireless modems implement one or more of the common cellular network protocols. Sierra Wireless AirCard products specifically support either the EV-DO or HSDPA / HSPA protocols.

Aircard Speeds

Aircards support much higher data rates than do dialup connections. For example, the Sierra Wireless AirCard 595U USB modem that supports EV-DO offered up to 3.1 Mbps data rate for downloads (and up to 1.8 Mbps for uploads). Their newer Compass USB modems advertise max 7.2 Mbps down and 5.76 Mbps up. Even though typical aircard data rates achievable in practice are much lower than these theoretical maximums, they still far exceed the 0.05 Mbps throughput of dialup.

Unfortunately, aircards tend to suffer from high network latency, sometimes even higher than that of a dialup connection. Expect to experience sluggishness and slow response times when loading Web pages over an aircard connection. Network games are also generally unplayable on them for this reason. Overall, aircards cannot compete with the overall performance levels of DSL or cable broadband Internet connections.

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