September 01, 2010, 2:07 PM — Clearwire and Virgin Mobile have both recently unveiled new portable Wi-Fi hotspots and contract-free unlimited mobile broadband data plans. The Clearwire Puck and the Virgin Mobile MiFi offer clear advantages over data plans offered by wireless carriers and will make bundled data plans obsolete unless wireless carriers get more competitive.
Wireless providers--especially AT&T and Verizon--are trying very hard to make sure users pay for every byte of data transferred, on every single device. Mobile data consumption is exploding and the wireless providers see dollar signs and an opportunity to cash in. Services like the mobile broadband offerings from Clearwire and Virgin Mobile, however, enable users to break free from the wireless provider shackles.
To be clear, jumping on the portable hotspot bandwagon won't relieve you of the obligation to have a data plan for smartphones with the major wireless providers. However, rather than paying $25 for 2Gb of data on the iPhone, plus $20 for the privilege of tethering a laptop to that connection, and an additional $25 for 2Gb of data on the iPad, AT&T subscribers can opt for the minimal $15 data plan for 200Mb on the iPhone, and instead spend $40 per month with Virgin Mobile for unlimited data on a portable hotspot that can be shared among all three platforms--and then some.
Doing the math, it appears to only be a savings of $15 per month, and it requires carrying an additional gadget around--which costs $150 to purchase in the first place. It doesn't seem like a compelling proposition. However, the mobile hotspots provide unlimited data--compared with the 4Gb combined total using the AT&T math, and also allow even more devices to connect--tacking an additional $50 or more in potential savings each month.
Customers of smaller wireless providers such as Sprint and T-Mobile already have access to unlimited data plans and Android smartphones capable of acting as mobile hotspots, so the Clearwire and Virgin Mobile services are less appealing to them. However, those unlimited data plans come with commitment strings attached, so there is still a minor advantage to the separate mobile broadband service.