I realize I'm spoiled living here in Seattle, where a broadband wireless Internet connection is often within a short walk or drive to the...

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I realize I’m spoiled living here in Seattle, where a broadband wireless Internet connection is often within a short walk or drive to the nearest coffee shop.

That helps explain how I went on vacation recently without a plan to access the Internet, even though I was wrapping up a book project. Typically I’d research dial-up modem access as an option, but it completely escaped my mind.

My family rented a house in California for a week to celebrate my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary. I naively figured there would be Internet access, because that’s the norm, right?

Wrong.

The house was in the hills above Santa Barbara, at the end of a long, winding drive, so I wasn’t even able to temporarily hop onto a neighbor’s unprotected wireless network. There was, however, an unplugged cable modem that needed to be connected to an aging PC for Internet access. I didn’t even bother.

Fortunately, I remembered a small piece of hardware in my bag left over from a recent article assignment: a Verizon KPC680 ExpressCard (www.verizonwireless.com).

Unlike the Wi-Fi capability built into most Macs released over the past several years, this Verizon card accesses the Internet over the cellular network. And that opens up a new world of access: Why should I have to find an access point to get onto the Internet with my laptop? Why not just open the computer’s lid and be online?

I’m sure that day will come, and hopefully soon. In the meantime, something like the KPC680 does the job.

The card slides into my MacBook Pro’s ExpressCard expansion slot. Devices for PC Card slots, found in earlier PowerBook models, are also available, as are devices that simply plug into a USB port. (My colleague Glenn Fleishman, for example, has recently been testing a Sprint device.) Check with your cellular provider for which devices are available.

Using the included VZAccess Manager software, I was able to connect to Verizon’s network and work just as if I were sitting at home or at a café. The card accesses Verizon’s EV-DO Rev A data network, which provides data rates up of to 3.1 megabits per second.

To compare, AT&T’s EDGE network used by the iPhone can handle about 237 kilobits per second; the HSDPA network used by the upcoming iPhone 3G can deliver up to 14.4 megabits per second.

These are all theoretical maximums, so real-world performance is sure to be much less.

That said, I was surprised to find transferring files (such as digital photos I shot) often seemed faster than my Clearwire network at home. Uploading the final files for my book project wasn’t the grueling test of patience I expected.

Pricing depends on the device and carrier; the KPC680 can be purchased online for $50 with a two-year contract; broadband access costs $60 for 5 gigabytes of data transfer per month, or $40 for a mere 50 megabytes, with per-megabyte charges applied if you exceed those limits.

If I traveled more, I would consider using one of these devices, but currently that’s more expensive than what I’m paying for Internet access at home; plus, as I mentioned, I’m surrounded by inexpensive Wi-Fi most of the time.

Sharing the connection: Although I’m the resident geek in the family, it wouldn’t have been nice for me to hog all the Internet access on vacation. My sister-in-law brought along her MacBook — which does not include an ExpressCard slot.

No problem. Once connected via the Verizon card, I enabled Internet sharing on my MacBook Pro.

In System Preferences, I opened the Sharing preference pane and clicked the Internet Sharing box in the left column; under Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, you’d click the Internet tab.

Next, I specified the ExpressCard from the “Share your connection from” pop-up menu. Since the Internet connection was coming in wirelessly from the Verizon card, my built-in AirPort was unused, so I specified AirPort in the “To computers using” field. Finally, clicking the AirPort Options button gave me the option to create my own personal Wi-Fi network.

The MacBook immediately saw my network and asked to join it, which gave my sister-in-law the same Internet access I was using. I could continue finishing my project while she checked her e-mail, looked up things to do in Santa Barbara, or let my nephew explore an amusing kids Web site from Disney called Club Penguin (www.clubpenguin.com).

Internet sharing works on any network connection. That capability comes in handy when you’re staying in a hotel that provides Internet access to just one computer (usually via Ethernet) and you want to share with family members’ or colleagues’ computers.

Then again, if you’re getting online using a cellular modem, you may not need to bother with what the hotel offers you (often for an outrageous fee).

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.