Historically, mobile broadband has been the road warrior's internet solution. Whether you're streaming a movie for your kid in the back seat or are simply tired of bad hotel Wi-Fi, hotspots and USB modems offer LAN-quality downloads to people on the move.
As mobile internet has gotten cheaper, however, it's also become a viable, budget alternative to cable providers like Comcast. Granted, mobile broadband plans can get expensive if you use too much data. But for casual browsers, a simple 1GB or 2GB plan will let you check your email and watch a few YouTube videos each month, while giving you the freedom to take that connection with you when you leave the house.
If you consider yourself a heavy user and crave speed and capacity, you're better off going with one of our picks for the best wireless internet providers around. The strength and ubiquity of Verizon Wireless's network, for instance, makes it an excellent solution. T-Mobile's speeds are faster than anyone else's, while AT&T offers a good balance of speed and coverage on a solid, coast-to-coast network. Be sure to read the mobile broadband articles we've put together if you're having trouble picking a provider.
As you might expect, there's plenty to consider when picking between mobile broadband providers. If you travel a lot, for example, coverage will probably trump everything else – after all, what's the point of having a mobile hotspot if it can't connect to a network? Keep the following points in mind and you're sure to find the perfect solution.
Picking a plan is all about knowing how much data you'll use on a regular basis. If you only check your email once a day and spend the rest of the time offline, you'll use much less data than someone who streams HD videos off Netflix and YouTube, downloads music, and plays games on their laptop.
If you don't watch videos online or browse too often, expect to use less than a gigabyte of data in a month. Avid gamers may need closer to 4GB or 6GB, while movie moguls will want as much bandwidth as they can afford. After all, a single HD movie can be upward of a gigabyte in size.
Of course, price is also a major consideration when picking a plan. Be warned that some carriers charge a line access fee for each device that connects to their network, in addition to the monthly price of service.
Coverage & Quality
Mobile hotspots connect to the same 4G LTE networks that smartphones use. The best networks aren't just available in major metropolitan areas, but in cities and towns across the U.S. If you tend to travel between the same few locations, you need only worry about whether those specific places get good service from a given provider. If, however, you're always on the move and never know where you might end up, you'll want to consider coverage first.
Once you know whether a provider covers you, the next consideration is speed. Basic 4G providers tend to offer download speeds between 2Mbps and 4Mbps – fast enough to browse the web or check your email, but little else. 4G LTE providers, meanwhile, can make streaming video and downloading big files and breeze. If you love watching movies, consider carriers that offer download rates over 10Mbps.
Unfortunately, even the best mobile broadband providers can charge hidden fees. Activation fees for each new device are tacked onto your first month's bill, while restocking fees get charged when you return a hotspot or USB dongle – assuming the provider accepts returns, of course. Should you buy a device on contract and then back out of the deal, you may have to pay early-termination fees, just like smartphone owners.
If you're not sure how much data you'll use each month, keep an eye on data overage fees. Some providers throttle your downloads to 3G or 2G rates if you crest your data allocation, while others will simply shut you down completely. The rest charge varying amounts for the extra data you use.
Devices & Features
There are two ways to connect to a mobile broadband network: hotspots and USB modems. Hotspots are like wireless routers you can take anywhere – they create mobile Wi-Fi networks that any Wi-Fi device can connect to. USB dongles, on the other hand, are specifically for laptops. They're usually cheaper than hotspots, but only a single computer can use them at a time, and they're not compatible with tablets, eReaders or certain operating systems.
Help & Support
Hopefully you'll never need to work with your provider's customer service team, but going with a carrier that offers dependable support is the safest bet. Different companies offer different methods of contact, but you'll be best off if you pick one with a contact method you're comfortable with. Should you spend a lot of time on social media, for example, selecting a carrier with an attentive Twitter team will keep you off the telephone and inevitable waits on hold.
In our smartphone-packed culture, we've gotten used to carrying the internet around in our pockets. With mobile broadband, we can make use of bigger screens and better keyboards, without sacrificing connectivity wherever we go.
At TopTenREVIEWS We Do the Research So You Don't Have To.™
|Verizon Wireless||T-Mobile||AT&T||Ting||FreedomPop||Virgin Mobile||Sprint||US Cellular||DataJack||H2O Wireless|
|Monthly Plan Comparison|
|Line Access Charge||$20||None||None||$6||None||None||None||$20||None||None|
|Coverage & Quality|
|Primary Coverage Network||Verizon||T-Mobile||AT&T||Sprint||Sprint||Sprint||Sprint||U.S. Cellular||Sprint||Clearwire|
|Urban Coverage Score||100%||75%||95%||65%||65%||60%||65%||30%||60%||25%|
|Rural Coverage Score||95%||50%||75%||55%||55%||50%||55%||30%||50%||5%|
|Markets with 4G LTE Coverage||506||268||526||303||303||None||303||64||None||None|
|Average 4G Speed (Mbps)||14||18||15||8||8||3||8||8||3||3|
|Overage Charge (per GB)||$15||Throttled||$10||$15||$10||Capped||$51.20||Throttled||Capped||None|
|Max Early Termination Fee||$350||None||$325||None||None||None||$350||$350||None||None|
|Devices & Features|
|Max Hotspot Connections||10||8||15||10||10||5||10||10||8||1|
|Help & Support|
|Customer Service Score||100%||80%||75%||85%||35%||75%||50%||95%||80%||10%|