What Is an AirCard?

AirCards provide laptop internet connections

Man using laptop on dock over calm lake
Use an AirCard to get wifi where it isn't readily available. Getty Images/Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury

When you aren't near a Wi-Fi hot spot, and you need to connect to your office network, you can use an AirCard with your laptop to access the internet. The AirCard gives you internet access wherever you can use your cellphone.

An AirCard is a type of wireless modem used for connecting mobile devices to the internet through cellular networks. AirCards provide access to the internet from laptop computers that are outside the range of Wi-Fi hot spots.

They can also be used as an alternative to home dial-up internet service in rural areas or other areas without high-speed internet service. They typically require a contract with a cellular provider in addition to your existing cellular contract.

Types of AirCards

In the past, cellular network service providers typically bundled and sometimes rebranded compatible wireless modems with their service contracts. In the U.S., for example, both AT&T and Verizon used products from Sierra Wireless even though they were called "AT&T AirCard" and "Verizon AirCard." AirCards are still available from major suppliers such as Netgear and Sierra Wireless.

AirCard wireless modems come in three standard form factors, and they require a compatible port or slot on a laptop to function properly.

  • PCMCIA PC Card is the original standard cellular modem card for computers.
  • ExpressCard provides a dramatic increase in bandwidth over the PCMCIA card it replaced.
  • USB modem provides cellular connectivity to any computer with a USB port.

Wireless modems implement one or more of the common cellular network protocols. Late-model AirCards deliver 3G/4G LTE broadband-quality speed in cities and 3G speed in many rural areas.

AirCard Speeds

AirCards support much higher data rates than do dial-up connections.

While many AirCards offer up to 3.1 Mbps data rate for downloads and up to 1.8 Mbps for uploads, newer USB cellular modems reach 7.2 Mbps down and 5.76 Mbps up. Even though typical AirCard data rates achievable in practice are lower than these theoretical maximums, they still far exceed the throughput of a dial-up connection.

Cons of Using AirCards for Internet Connectivity

AirCards tend to suffer from high network latency that is sometimes even higher than that of a dial-up connection, although as connection speed has improved, so has the latency problem. Unless you are on a 3G/4G connection, expect to experience sluggishness and slow response times when loading webpages over an AirCard connection. Network games are usually unplayable on AirCards for this reason. Most AirCards cannot compete with the overall performance levels of DSL or cable broadband internet connections, but the newest ones deliver speeds equal to their cellular providers, which in some instances is broadband-quality.

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