Mobile broadband: Prepaid and other no-contract options

by Daniel P. Dern - Mobile broadband, whether for your smartphone or your notebook computer, can be a convenience or even essential.

But not everybody wants to commit to a year-plus contract for the privilege. Maybe you don't travel a lot... or maybe you need it just for a specific trip to another country or continent. Sometimes, even if it's not the most cost-effective way to buy megabits, you want to just pay for a specified amount of service and/or time.

Until recently, there weren't many options. But that's changed. Most of the main cellular broadband players -- AT&T Wireless, Clearwire, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Virgin Mobile (but not, as of September, Sprint) are all offering prepaid and/or other no-contract options. Plus, resellers and bundlers are getting into the act.

Some of the carriers also bundle in free access to selected WiFi hotspots.

Here's the short scoop.

Disclaimer: I haven't tried any of these, except for iPass... and I haven't used iPass since they revised their offering. (I did recently see people using the new Virgin Mobile offering, outside the U.S.)

1. You'll probably need to buy an external broadband device

Unless your smartphone or laptop works with the carrier you want to use, you'll need a device -- a USB dongle, PCMCIA/ExpressCard, or "mobile router" -- that includes the antenna, radio, and other components that works with.

[ Embedded mobile broadband versus dongles or tethering: Which is best? ]

You can find the adapters, and associated plan brochures, not just in wireless phone stores and computer stores, but also, increasingly, in BestBuy and other consumer retail outlets.

Most of these are from the carrier -- and are carrier-specific -- and cost between $75 and $150, not counting the service... which means that you're betting this is the carrier you'll want to keep using. (If you go the contract route, the adapter may be free.)

But there are also adapters that can be used with one or more carriers. Zoom Telephonics has 3G Mobile Broadband Modems and Routers -- USB adapters that take carrier SIM cards. (They're for specific frequencies/protocols, so make sure you get the model appropriate for the country you'll be in.) And Zoom is looking at 3G routers with this capability. (Currently, their WiFi mobile routers use one of their USB adapters for the 3G service.)

2. Pay attention to prices and terms

Prepaid services won't let you inadvertently run up a huge bill, but one that you give your credit card or bank account number to might. Read carefully.

There shouldn't be any activation or termination fees.

Prepaid/no-contract broadband is generally sold based on both bits and time (e.g. 10MB/1 day, 1GB/1 month -- whichever expires first). There's no "rollover bits" if you haven't used them all in the time period.

Warning note: These plans are for data. They don't include SMS text messages, and may not include other things you think of as data. Read that fine print, especially if you're connecting to a smartphone.

3. Who's got what: Primary carriers

Here's what I'm seeing as available within the United States, in terms of no-contract mobile broadband offerings that aren't tied to a specific machine.

(And for an even more thorough, maintained list, see Prepaid-Wireless-Guide.com)

AT&T's DataConnect Pass currently has three no-contract options: Day ($15, 100MB); Week ($30, 300MB); Month ($50, 1GB).

Clearwire's Rover uses 3G, 4G (WiMax) and WiFi, for $5/day, $20/week, or $50/month (no bandwidth limits specified), using either the Rover Stick ($99.99), or the Rover Puck ($149.99), which supports up to 8 WiFi devices.

Sprint's no-contract service is sold through Virgin Mobile USA Broadband2Go: $10 for 100MB (10 days), or $40 for unlimited use for 1 month. In addition to a $79.99 USB adapter, Virgin offers a MiFi 2200 mobile hotspot, which allows up to five WiFi devices to connect, for $149.99.

T-Mobile offers two no-contract plans: Even More Plus webConnect 200MB Plan, $24.99/month for 200MB, and $0.10/MB for overage, and the Even More Plus webConnect Overage Free Plan, $39.99/month, 5GB -- no overage charges, but "After 5 GB, data speeds may be reduced."

Verizon Wireless' Prepaid Mobile Broadband has four choices: $15 for 100MB, 1 day; $30 for 300MB, 1 week; $50 for 1GB, 1 month or $80 for 5GB, 1 month.

4. Resellers and aggregators

There are a number of companies reselling adapters and access.

The one I'm familiar with is iPass, which bundles and resells access including WiFi, wired Ethernet and DSL, mobile broadband, and even dial-up. iPass doesn't sell directly, they go through resellers, and within the past year, they added VPN and other security and connection management services.

As of a year ago, when I was trying the iPass network with both 3G and WiFi -- iPass' and its resellers' sites are far from helpful in terms of current offerings and pricing -- you paid month-to-month, and would only be charged for use of mobile broadband access during months when you used it.

Conclusions and suggestions

Domestically, if you've got a smartphone, "tethering" (using your smartphone as a mobile broadband modem), may be your most cost-effective solution. Especially if tethering is a separate cost (like AT&T Wireless, $20/month), and if there's no per-transaction cost to add/remove that service (AT&T says there isn't).

If you're going to be in another country for a few days to a few weeks, a local prepaid mobile broadband offering, or one that will work in that country, may be your best bet. It may not be the cheapest per day or megabit, but the zero-commitment counts for a lot, especially if you can use VoIP (Skype, GoogleVoice, etc.) to avoid or minimize those expensive international cell phone calls.

Got any better ideas? Let me know!

Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology writer based in Newton Center, MA. His web site is www.dern.com and his technology blog is TryingTechnology.com.

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