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AIR CARDS CAN LEAD TO SKY-HIGH COSTS

WARNING: Don't use those AT&T wireless air cards for your all-purpose Internet access.

Regularly downloading movies, videos, music and other large files could end up costing you a small fortune using the AT&T wireless air cards.

Roger Douyard, a 67-year-old Realtor from Clearwater, worried that he might exceed his air card limit after reading horror stories on Internet complaint boards about the telecom hitting consumers with bills of hundreds - even thousands - of dollars.

For months, Complaintsboard.com has been lighting up with consumers such as pablo51965, who received $546 in over-the-limit charges; Chris, who was $3,000 over the limit; and Trevise425, whose June bill reached over-the-limit charges of $8,000 from AT&T wireless.

AT&T's response: "Our wireless data services are not intended to be used as a replacement for Wi-Fi, DSL or cable services," Kelly Starling, a spokeswoman for the telecom, said in a statement. "For instance, a customer who uses our service as their primary Internet connection from their residence and intends to upload or download extremely large amounts of data would be better served with a wired network connection."

AT&T says there's a 5 gigabyte cap on their "DataConnect" plans for air cards, which are mostly designed "to support mobile access to the Internet, e-mail and corporate Intranets."

So basically, for $60 a month in regular air card charges on the DataConnect 5 plan, you can search Google, maybe check out CNN (just the text news articles, guys, no videos), and send some e-mails.

Exceed the 5-GB limit and it will cost you 49 cents a megabyte on that plan.

I know what you're saying: Just how much use can you get out of 5 gigabytes?

You could watch about 280 four-minute YouTube videos a month, or four to five full-length movies, or download or upload 1,000 songs.

On its face, that seems like plenty.

But when you start mixing it up - a full-length movie this week, a few YouTube videos a day, a relaxing period of music several times a week and a series of e-mails and Google searches every day - those gigabytes disappear pretty fast. And with a growing emphasis on watching television and movies on your laptop or PC, the air card could put some good folks in the poorhouse.

Douyard said AT&T wasn't always such a stickler about usage, but the videos appear to be the major culprit driving telecoms to get their customers to adhere to limits noted in their agreements.

"They said they never used to police, but now they are. People are starting to use it too much," Douyard said he was told by AT&T. " ... Five gigabytes doesn't allow you to download much."

So here's the Edge:

- Go practical over mere convenience or high-tech. Expect options to develop in the future, but for now, air cards are not a good vehicle for transmitting large data files such as videos. If it's a few videos a month, you will be fine. But several videos, and large ones in particular, are going to cost you.

- Check your data usage. If you already are a customer, check with your service provider about getting regular updates on your account usage to avoid going over your limit. The information often is available online or even through e-mail updates.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter and www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge.

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