Mobile Broadband Review
Why Pay for Mobile Broadband?
The top performers in our review are Verizon Wireless, the Gold Award winner; H2O Wireless, the Silver Award winner; and AT&T, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a mobile broadband provider to meet your needs, along with details on how we arrived at our rankings of the 10 best services.
Mobile broadband offers the ultimate in online freedom. Sure, any smartphone with a data plan can get online, but laptops and Wi-Fi-only tablets aren’t so fortunate, and tethering isn't an optimal solution. If you compute on the go and need reliable, ubiquitous web access for all your devices, mobile broadband services are your best bet.
Most mobile internet plans are offered by the same cell phone providers that fuel our smartphones. If you already have cellular service, you can usually buy a mobile hotspot or USB dongle, tack it onto your plan and play around with your data allocation until you find a setup that meets your needs. Conversely, if you're on a prepaid cell phone plan that's affordable but doesn't offer the best service, you might consider starting a separate account with a network that has the all-presence you need. Most hotspots and USB sticks retail for between $150 and $200, but you can usually get one for free if you're willing to sign up for a two-year contract.
How We Evaluated the Providers
Unlike most of our reviews and comparisons, Top Ten Reviews considers price when we rank wireless internet providers because how much you have to pay each month is probably a significant factor in your buying decision. It's not, however, the most important factor; above all else, we consider quality of service.
Since it's in their best interest to inflate numbers, providers can't be counted on to accurately report their coverage quality and speeds. Crowdsourcing options like Ookla's Speedtest and the popular OpenSignal both let you test download speeds, but for an accurate, independent impression of coverage quality and reliability, RootMetrics is the gold standard. We use RootMetrics' RootScores to guide our analysis of network quality, aggregating them with crowdsourced data and our own tests and experience to arrive at our final grades.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. The providers we reviewed had no input or influence over that evaluation methodology, nor was it provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
The Smartphone Option: To Tether or Not to Tether?
Every modern smartphone can act as a mobile hotspot for other devices via tethering. Your phone has the ability to create its own miniature Wi-Fi network, and then you can connect to that network from your laptop or tablet. When you do this, your other devices make use of your phone's cellular connection.
Tethering is undeniably convenient, but there are three reasons why it's not terribly reliable:
Smartphones aren't optimized to route network data. The routers many of us have at home are able to handle many simultaneous connections because they have specialized firmware. This built-in software is phenomenal at sorting and prioritizing network connections so that every computer on a Wi-Fi network feels equally fast. Smartphones don't have this firmware.
You can lose your connection if you make or receive a call. Depending on your cellular network, your phone may not be able to make a phone call and keep its network connection at the same time. If you're browsing the web on your computer and someone calls you, goodbye internet.
It drains your phone's battery. Active internet connections sap your phone's power. Even if you keep your phone in your pocket doing nothing but maintaining that internet connection, you can still find yourself without enough juice to finish out the day. Mobile hotspots often have their own sizable batteries built in, while USB sticks make use of your laptop's internal power.
The Best Mobile Broadband Service: Verizon
With the finest mobile hotspot, the widest range of pricing tiers, and the very best network coverage and reliability in the country, Verizon Wireless storms into our number one position. It is, quite simply, the best of the best.
Granted, when you think of Verizon you probably think expensive. Sure, it offers the best service, but you have to pay for that convenience on your monthly smartphone bill. Fortunately, the same is not true of Verizon's data-only plans; if you're only interested in a mobile hotspot, Big Red is on par with other providers.
The Contract-Free Option: H2O Wireless
Verizon offers superlative connectivity, but its mobile hotspot can be a bit expensive if you elect to buy off-contract. H2O Wireless is our favorite no-contract alternative to the heavy hitters. Its hotspot costs $99 up front, and its two monthly plans offer service at the easily budgeted rate of $10 a gigabyte – $50 for a 5GB plan, $70 for a 7GB plan. Best of all, H2O is an AT&T MVNO, which means it operates on AT&T's network. Sure, it's not quite as widespread or reliable as Verizon's, but it's a very close second.
The Budget-Hunter's Pick: FreedomPop
If you want cheap wireless internet and only plan to use it sparingly throughout the month, FreedomPop is a solid alternative. While its help and support is lackluster and its website can be infuriatingly unclear about the specific details of its devices, you can get a 5GB data allocation for $31.99 a month or a 200MB allocation for free. That's 5GB of data for less than the cost of 1GB to 2GB plans at most competitors and is a phenomenal deal.
Mobile Broadband Services: Our Verdict and Recommendations
Whichever mobile internet plan you decide on, remember to look at the quality of the provider's coverage first. It's extremely frustrating to spend the money on a mobile hotspot or USB dongle only to find that you can't connect to the web when you need to because of poor coverage.
With that in mind, we unequivocally recommend Verizon Wireless. Its data-only plans aren't extravagantly priced, it offers a slew of data tiers and the mobile hotspots it sells are just plain better than what you can buy from the competition. H2O Wireless is a great option if you want carrier-class service without the contract. AT&T serves as a decent runner up, but it’s more expensive than Verizon for slightly worse service and should only be picked if you're already an AT&T customer.
Whatever you choose, we're here to help. Read our articles on mobile broadband, scan our comparison chart above, and use our grades to guide your choices. You'll be delighted with the mobile internet service you find.