Info & Answers
Internet on the Go: Mobile Broadband Options
For those who want to stay forever tethered to the Internet, a mobile broadband subscription is the way to go. We’ve examined the major service providers.
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December 03, 2008 by Ben Hardy

Choosing from the long list of mobile broadband service providers is in many ways like choosing any service provider, with a few important differences. The first comparison point is always going to be cost, and in this there is, at first glance, remarkable consistency among the providers we’ve looked at. The roughly $60-per-month rate is typical, so this is not an immediate or obvious factor for differentiation. Costs can also vary depending on the plan specifics—more expensive plans usually bring higher data limits. In addition to cost, here are some other factors to consider:

  • Data – Providers may set a limit on the number of Megabits or Gigabits of data that can be transferred on a monthly basis.
  • Availability/Coverage
  • Activation Fee
  • Early Termination Fee
  • Equipment Costs

Of those factors, the most important will probably be coverage or availability. Consumers should look for a plan that will grant them internet access in the many areas or regions where they will need it. This may be primarily the home, but it will most likely include major metropolitan areas frequently visited. Check out the compared service providers’ coverage maps below, and keep in mind that cell phone service does not always guarantee internet service.

Mobile Broadband Hardware Requirements
The integrated wireless technology found in today’s laptops is suitable for 802.11 a/b/g/n wireless scenarios, e.g. modem-to-wireless router-laptop, but accessing a mobile broadband provider’s service can require additional hardware. The 3G cellular wireless networks leveraged to provide mobile broadband operate differently from the shorter-ranged IEEE 802.11 wireless network. The major cellular/mobile broadband providers all sell the required laptop cards, PC-cards, or USB-connected hardware to connect to their cellular network. (These hardware pieces come under a variety of names, including “mobile broadband cards,” “express cards,” and “wireless internet card.”) By connecting the hardware device into the laptop’s appropriate port, the consumer can access the Internet across the same network used to provide cell phone service. Theoretically, wherever one can get solid cell phone service, one can get wireless Internet.

The devices used to connect a laptop or PC to a mobile Internet provider’s network will vary in price and in form. The USB-port devices are growing in popularity and availability, and some are bringing 2-in-1 features by adding microSD slots for storage capability.

In addition to the laptop card, there are devices available to consumers that can enhance or boost the cellular signal. CradlePoint Technology manufactures and sells mobile broadband routers that can accept GSM and CDMA (see below) laptop cards and USB-style cellular modems, connect to a service provider’s cellular network, and turn that connection into a Wi-Fi network, to which multiple users can connect. “Our routers turn the mobile broadband connection into an 802.11 b, g, or n wireless network,” says Miles Penrod, sales engineer for CradlePoint. CradlePoint’s website has a compatibility list to determine if your specific laptop card or external cellular modem is compatible with their line of routers.

Many laptop manufacturers include cellular modem technology in their products. When shopping for integrated mobile broadband technology, look into the wireless internet features of the laptop. They may be listed as “WWAN” or Wireless Wide Area Network. Some laptops will include both EVDO and HSDPA technologies (see below), which will give the user a broader option when it comes to selecting a service providers mobile broadband plan.

3G Network Wars
The current 3G protocols used by the major cellular broadband service providers include EDGE, EVDO, and HSPA (or HSPDA). Consumers can easily become overwhelmed by the “alphabet soup” factor of all the acronyms, but it is useful to know the difference. In North America, the two main standards for cellular networks are GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access). Major cellular providers will fall into one category or the other. By extension, these providers will also use the latest 3G mobile broadband protocol employed by one standard or another. By and large, those are EVDO for the CDMA service providers and HSPA for the GSM service providers. Although those within the industry bandy around terms like “2.5G,” “3.5G,” and “4G,” for all intents and purposes both EVDO (Evolution Data Optimization) and HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access) are the most touted 3G networks in the US, as they each boast a conjunction of availability with the fastest speeds. “The latest generation of technology will bring increased speed and efficiency,” says AT&T spokesperson Warner May. AT&T employs the GSM-backed HSPA and EDGE technologies in their mobile broadband devices.

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Ben Hardy - Contributing Writer
Between watching re-runs of the The Jetsons and convincing his Insteon and Z-Wave controls to get along, Ben Hardy is immersed in the world of home automation, home control, and home networking.

Features/Pricing Chart

Verizon BroadbandAccess Sprint Mobile Broadband AT&T DataConnect Alltel Wireless Internet XOHM
Basic Plan Cost (per month) $39.99 $59.99 $60.00 $59.99 $45.00
Data Limit 50 MB 5 GB 5 GB Unlimited Unlimited
Upgrade Plan Cost $59.99 N/A N/A $69.99 (includes Wi-Fi hotspot access) N/A
Data Limit 5 GB N/A N/A Unlimited N/A
Unlimited Plan Cost N/A N/A N/A See above N/A
Per MB cost after data limit $.25 N/A $.50 N/A N/A
Availability See map See map See map See map Baltimore, MD
Download Speed 600Kbps – 1.4Mbps Up to 1.4 Mbps Up to 3.6 Mbps Up to 3.1 Mbps Up to 10 Mbps
Equipment Costs $0 – 149.99 $0 – $249.99 $0 - $299 $0 - $270 $59.99
Activation Fee $35 Up to $36 $36 $25 None
Early Termination Fee $175 Up to $200 $175 $200 None
Coverage map map map map map
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