Your Best Mobile Broadband Bets for 2011
If you want Internet access for your laptop when you're on the road rather than just in the coffee shop, then you need a subscription to a mobile broadband service. And you're in luck—it's a highly competitive market out there right now, with seven national networks fighting for your money.
But the best of the seven, judging by data gathered by TopTenReviews, is Verizon Wireless (VZW). While VZW was neck-and-neck with No. 2 AT&T in terms of coverage area, transmission speed and reliability, it beat AT&T in terms of overage charges. Basically, all the carriers have a basic plan charging you about $60 for 5 gigabytes of data traffic monthly—and then they charge by the megabyte for the overage. Since surfing one website can consume a megabyte's worth of traffic, overage charges can ultimately become hefty.
AT&T charges 49 cents per megabyte for overage, while VZW only charges 5 cents. So downloading that 1 gigabyte home movie as overage would cost $501.76 with AT&T but $51.20 with VZW. (Or, you could stick to unmetered landlines for big downloads.)
Coming in at No. 3 is Sprint, which suffered from international coverage issues—it either doesn't have any, and where it does, the price is sky-high. However, on the company's standard domestic plan, overage is only 5 cents per megabyte.
T-Mobile placed No. 4, getting good ratings for customer service, but bad ratings for broadband network coverage. (Its voice coverage is better.) Overage charges are an uncomfortable 20 cents per megabyte.
Comcast, at No. 5 on the list, is still building its network and so far falls behind T-Mobile in coverage. It breaks ranks with the major carriers by charging $40 rather than $60 for a 5 gigabyte package. Overage charges are 5 cents per megabyte.
In the No. 6 slot, U.S. Cellular charges the same for overage as No. 2 AT&T, or 49 cents per megabyte. Although the network is upgrading, it relies on slower transmission technology, usually called 2.5G rather than the 3G (i.e., third generation) technology used by its competitors. Also, its local coverage is often provided by subcontractors.
On the whole, 5 gigabytes per month is probably plenty for most people. With prices for 5 gigabyte packages being so competitive (always ask about discounts and promotions) your first question should be coverage. Does the network in question offer solid coverage where you are and where you plan on going?
Finally, any time you can pull over and use Wi-Fi, do so. Throughput will be several times faster than mobile broadband, and there's no overage meter.
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