Given that it's a regional carrier, you may not have heard of U.S. Cellular, the fifth-largest provider of mobile service in America. Unlike other, smaller carriers that lease network coverage from Sprint or AT&T, U.S. operates its own towers in various parts of the Midwest – Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Oklahoma in particular – as well as a few spots along the Eastern seaboard. You can get 3G elsewhere, but if you're after 8Mbps speeds, you'll want to use your new mobile internet connection where U.S. Cellular offers direct coverage.
There's plenty of variety in U.S. Cellular's mobile broadband plans, which start at $10 a month for 1GB of data. For an extra $10, you can get another gigabyte, and the data tiers increase from there at $10 for every 2GB – $30 for 4GB, $40 for 6GB, and so on. While these are great prices, they don't include the cost of the company's line access fee. For every hotspot or USB dongle you connect, you have to pay $20 per month on top of your service plan. Effectively, you'll end up paying $40 a month for 2GB of data, $50 for 4GB and so on.
Like most mobile broadband providers, U.S. Cellular tacks fees onto many of its transactions. Unless you manage to catch a promotion, expect to see an extra $35 activation fee on your first bill after you buy your new hotspot. Likewise, if you return a device you bought, you'll incur a $35 restocking fee. If you buy a modem or hotspot on contract – which reduces their up-front cost, but locks you into two years with the company – you'll incur an early termination fee of up to $350 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 4G LTE coverage, U.S. Cellular can't quite compete with the best wireless internet providers in our breakdown, but that doesn't stop it from being a solid carrier. Where it offers 4G LTE, the company's service is perfectly reliable, and is backed up by a superb support staff that's attentive, helpful and easy to get in touch with. With ubiquity the name of the game in mobile broadband, it's tough to rank U.S. Cellular with the best of the best, but that doesn't keep us from respecting what it has to offer.
With plenty of variety in its plans, U.S. Cellular has options for just about any user.
Since it's a regional carrier, availability of 4G LTE services is limited to parts of the Midwest and the Eastern seaboard.
So long as the places you live and travel to are covered by U.S. Cellular's 4G LTE network, you can enjoy 8Mbps speeds at decent prices. Stray outside that network, however, and you'll be throttled to a 3G connection.