PROS / With plenty of variety in its plans, U.S. Cellular has options for just about any user.
CONS / Since it's a regional carrier, availability of 4G LTE services is limited to parts of the Midwest and the Eastern seaboard.
VERDICT / So long as the places you live in and travel to are covered by U.S. Cellular's 4G LTE network, you can enjoy moderate speeds at moderate prices. Stray outside that network, however, and you are throttled to a 3G connection.
Given that it's a regional carrier, you may not have heard of U.S. Cellular, though it's the fifth-largest cellular carrier in America. Unlike other, smaller carriers that lease network coverage from Sprint or AT&T, U.S. Cellular operates its own towers in various parts of the Midwest – Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Ohio in particular – as well as spots along the Eastern seaboard. You can get 3G elsewhere, but if you're after speeds that are fast enough to stream video, you have to use your new portable internet hotspot in those few places U.S. Cellular offers 4G LTE service.
There's plenty of variety in U.S. Cellular's mobile broadband plans, which start at $30 a month for 1GB of data, including the $20 line access charge for mobile hotspots. For an extra $10, you get another gigabyte, and the data tiers increase from there at $10 for every 2GB – $50 for 4GB, $60 for 6GB and so on. This puts U.S. Cellular's prices on par with Verizon's, though of course U.S. Cellular's coverage is far thinner and nowhere near as fast.
Like most mobile internet providers, U.S. Cellular tacks fees on to many of its transactions. Unless you manage to catch a promotion, expect to see an extra $40 activation fee on your first bill after you buy your new hotspot. Likewise, if you return a device you bought, you incur a $35 restocking fee. If you buy a modem or hotspot on contract – which reduces the upfront cost but locks you into two years with the company – you incur an early termination fee of up to $150 if you decide to stop service before the contract is up. Thankfully, for every month you're with the company, that fee is reduced.
Without nationwide broadband coverage, U.S. Cellular just can't compete with the mobile internet alternatives that offer cheap, cross-country access. That doesn't stop it from being a solid carrier; where it offers 4G LTE, the company's service is perfectly reliable and backed up by a superb support staff who are attentive, helpful and easy to get in touch with. But with ubiquity the name of the game in mobile broadband, it's tough to rank U.S. Cellular with the best of the best.