What you need to know about accessing the Internet on a smartphone

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Robert Harris asked me to explain the technologies and concerns around smartphone Internet access.

[Email your tech questions to answer@pcworld.com or post them on the PCW Answer Line forum.]

Not so long ago, it didn't matter much how you accessed the Internet from your smartphone. Changes in most people's service plans, however, are altering that condition. Use the wrong technology, and your mobile phone bill will go up.

Smartphones, such as iPhones and Android phones, are basically small, handheld computers with built-in phones, GPS, and cameras. And like any other modern computer, they're tools for accessing the Internet. For many people, that's their primary function.

Most smartphones use two different technologies to access the Internet--the cellular network you subscribe to, such as Verizon or AT&T, and plain old, regular Wi-Fi. The advantage of the cell network, provided you're on a good one, is that it's nearly ubiquitous. You can access the Internet from just about anywhere that you have cellphone service.

However, with most phones and in most locations, you get Third Generation (3G) service, which is pretty slow. You'll get faster service with 4G, but few phones have it and most locations don't yet support it.

Wi-Fi can be much faster, of course, depending on the network. While it isn't everywhere, it's probably in your home, your local cafe, your library, and your office. You must log onto a Wi-Fi network to access it, and in most cases that involves knowing the password.

Another issue: Wi-Fi tends to drain the battery faster than 3G.

Now here's the big, important change: Until very recently, most smartphones came with unlimited data plans for about $30 a month. But the carriers are abandoning that model, and forcing people into plans that ration Internet data. Use too much of it, and your bill could go up considerably.

What can you do about it? My family is putting off upgrading our phones as long as possible. We know what once one of us upgrades, all of us lose unlimited data. But that's a solution that won't last.

The other option: Make sure you're on Wi-Fi whenever possible. Most phones default to Wi-Fi when they're logged onto a network. Also, don't download apps or play multimedia unless you're on a Wi-Fi network.

This story, "What you need to know about accessing the Internet on a smartphone" was originally published by PCWorld.

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