Verizon Improves Modem, Still Lags Rivals

Let's take Verizon on a little road trip, shall we?

Small-business owners face the same dilemma every summer: buy fancy mobile broadband service from Verizon Communications, Sprint Nextel, AT&T or T-Mobile, or suck it up and rely on Wi-Fi networks at local libraries and Starbucks.

On one hand, wireless broadband modems are easy to use and offer secure connections to our increasingly virtual offices. Simply plug in one of the USB or PC card-based modems, load some software and wait for the computer to do its thing. All the headaches you tried to escape will be in front of you again.

On the other hand, modems can be finicky about connecting to the Web in some locations. They're not cheap: usage runs $60 a month on top of your regular bill. They require extra equipment to share a data line among several users. And they're slow; Wi-Fi and wired service are about two or three times faster, in my experience.

Verizon's data service, in particular, has never been worth the cost. The company runs the tightest ship in the phone business, but its data network can be difficult to access and doesn't accept as many devices as competitors. And its software, VZAccess Manager, isn't as compatible with PCs and Apple computers as the packages of other major carriers.

Verizon says it's upgrading its wireless modems. I have been testing the USB760, which costs $70 when you sign up for a two-year plan, to assess the situation.

What you get: A robust data connection that's suitable for small businesses.

Verizon has followed other carriers by putting its data software on the USB drive itself. So installation requires no discs. You simply plug the modem in, let the software load and walk through some menus.

VZAccess Manager was more stable and forgiving since the last time I used the software 18 months ago. It worked on a Hewlett-Packard netbook running Microsoft's Windows XP, a Toshiba laptop running Windows Vista's Small Business edition and a Sony Vaio running an early release of Windows 7.

I was able to plug the thing into the laptop and pull it out at any point without bringing the computer to its knees, which has been a problem in the past. Verizon's customer support was fast and well-informed.

Most importantly, the range of coverage has improved. The unit worked well in Phoenix, Maine, Denver and around New York. The device proved to be a lifesaver when my local network stopped working at my home office in the woods.

What you don't get: A super-fast data connection.

Verizon offers a decent Web-surfing experience, but Sprint's service is faster, in my opinion. Verizon representatives might disagree, but that's my observation.

Verizon also trails rivals in international service. I was impressed by T-Mobile's webConnect USB stick, which cost $50 after discounts. Verizon's Global USB1000 Modem costs $150 after discounts. Sprint is now giving away similar modems.

Bottom line: Verizon's mobile Web service is a vast improvement over its previous wireless modem offerings. It's stable and comes with excellent support. If you're a Verizon customer already, it's worth trying.

But if you're not tied to Verizon and shopping for a wireless modem, other carriers do a better job, particularly Sprint.

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