Decide on the Best Postpaid Mobile Broadband Provider

Decide on the Best Postpaid Mobile Broadband Provider

It’s a question that dates back to when dinosaurs roamed the planet…

Okay, so maybe not that far.

Nevertheless, it’s a question that pops up a lot. Mobile broadband is becoming increasing popular for a number of reasons. Perhaps the biggest reason is cost and convenience. For not much more than the cost of Cable or DSL, just about anyone could have a broadband card that sticks into their laptop. And just like that, they get broadband speeds anywhere in the country they travel. It’s excellent especially if you’re out working more than you are at your house. It just makes sense.

There’s not much that can be said about convenience. What more can you say than being able to connect anytime and anyplace. Wondering if a WiFi hotspot costs money or if its even their becomes a thing of the past. Power went out? No problem. How about we MapQuest the nearest restaurant in this new city? The possibilities are endless. Oh, and you can check email too.

But you already knew that.

You’re here to find out who’s the best amongst the plethora of available options. You might have heard of satellite broadband, mobile broadband and even WiMAX. I’ll help you set the record straight with some easy but detailed guidelines on how to pick the best mobile broadband provider.

Should I go Prepaid or Contract?

It all depends.

Essentially, there are two kinds of prepaid mobile broadband plans:

1. Plans designed for long-term use
2. Plans designed for intermittent short-term use

It’s important to mention the notable differences between prepaid mobile broadband and ‘contracted’ mobile broadband. While we compare prepaid to contract mobile broadband, bear in mind that we’re comparing the plans designed for long-term use (by Cricket).

Why? To cut a long story short, Cricket is the best in terms of long-term prepaid mobile broadband at the moment. For the full story on that, check out the 2009 Prepaid Mobile Broadband Comparison. To keep the length of this lesson down, we summarize the differences below:

Prepaid vs. Contract Mobile Broadband


  • No contract
  • No credit check
  • No Early Termination Fee
  • Limited Broadband Card Selection
  • Pay anywhere from $50 – $200 for equipment + setup
  • Plans can be cheaper ($40 – $60)
  • Variety of plans – Short-term & Long-term plans
  • Mixture of average and fast speeds. Coverage can be limited


  • 2 year contracts normal
  • Credit check
  • Early Termination Fee up to $200
  • Wide Range of Broadband Cards
  • Deeply discounted cards (free & sometimes make $100)
  • Plans usually ($60)
  • Long Term plans
  • Faster Speeds, Better Reliability and Expansive Coverage

If you’re looking to cut costs, then prepaid may be the way to go. However, they may or may not have coverage where you need it. For a more stable, faster and reliable connection, contracted mobile broadband will have your back for a higher cost.

What To Look For In A Provider

While tempting, its normally not a good idea to go with a provider just based on how much they cost. While price is important, no one wants a car that breaks down the day after they buy it.

In no particular order, there are about 5 major things to look for in a provider:

* Cost
* Speed
* Coverage
* Reliability
* Customer Service


Most mobile broadband providers have settled around $60 for 5 Gigabytes per month. While this is changing as Sprint and Clearwire roll out WiMAX, it’s still the norm. The only exception to this unwritten rule is Alltel (and a few prepaid mobile broadband carriers).

T-Mobile’s Wireless Internet is unlimited and runs about $50 per month. The catch is that their 3G network is still expanding. While this is slowly changing with the FCC clearing their first broadband card, it’s not something to lose sleep over.

AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and most recently T-Mobile, all cap their mobile broadband plans at 5 Gigabytes per month. Naturally, the next question one might ask is how much can 5 GB get me? Great question. We cover that in the next lesson. In addition to implementing caps, they’ve also got overage charges. While none of them are good, some will perform a bloody massacre on your bank account if you’re not careful.

For instance a poor kid went to Canada and didn’t get the memo. AT&T charged his family $19,370. Now you might wonder, did they ever resolve it? I don’t know. I do know this however:

Do not go over the cap.

Long story short:

Sprint = $60 | 5 GB cap | $0.05 cents per MB ($51.20/GB) overage charge.

T-Mobile = $50 | 5 GB | $0.20 cents per MB ($204.80/GB) overage charge. They also offer a 200 MB plan that has the same overage charge.

Verizon = $60 | 5 GB cap | $0.05 cents per MB ($51.20/GB) overage charge on 5GB plans. For 250 MB plans, it’s $102.40/GB ($0.10 cents/MB).

AT&T = $60 | 5 GB cap | $0.49 cents per MB ($503.31/GB) overage charge on 5 GB plans. For 200 MB plans, it’s $10 per 100MB you go over..

*These overage charges are domestic. You don’t even want to think about international overages. Remember the poor kid that went to Canada. How, you ask, did he rack up $19,370?

At $19.97 per MB in overage fees, that’s $20447.20 for 1 GB of overage fees abroad. Note that their international plan includes only 200 MB (the size of a 45 minute show from iTunes).

1 GB = 1024 MB | 1 MB = 1024 KB

Before we hop on to speed and other things to look out for, you might be asking, what about the price of WiMAX and Satellite broadband?

Unfortunately, WiMAX is only available in less than 4 cities right now and will be that way for pretty much all of 2009. Not a great option if you do any traveling. Unless you’re an early adopter that would like to test out a new network, I don’t really recommend it. I’m not knocking it, I just don’t recommend it. It’s like testing out the latest version of Windows while its still in beta. Not for the light of heart.

While Satellite Broadband has its positives, I wouldn’t recommend it unless 3G mobile broadband was not available. Considering that it is widely available, I focus there. If you feel you might be serviced by the smaller markets of either WiMAX or Satellite Broadband, here’s where you can check it out.


Now we’re getting somewhere!

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that mobile broadband speed is one of the biggest factors you want to think about. Will it be fast enough? What is the latency like? Let’s start this off with what’s possible and then we’ll get to the straight talk about what actually is.

FerrariIn the United States, there are 2 main ways to get mobile broadband:

1. Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO) provided by Verizon, Sprint & Alltel
2. High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) provided by AT&T & *T-Mobile

Without getting too much into techno-talk, they both get you on the internet at 3G speeds. While the average speeds are the same, the maximum speeds you can get depend on the underlying network technology.

EVDO (Sprint, Alltel & Verizon)

Average Download Speed | 600 – 1400 Kbps
Average Upload Speed | 500 – 800 Kbps
Maximum Download Speed | 3.1 Mbps
Maximum Upload Speed | 1.8 Mbps

HSPA (AT&T & T-Mobile)

Average Download Speed | 600 – 1400 Kbps
Average Upload Speed | 500 – 800 Kbps
Maximum Download Speed | 1.7 Mbps
Maximum Upload Speed | 1.2 Mbps

From just the looks of it, you’d get the impression that Sprint and Verizon just pummel up on AT&T & T-Mobile when it comes to maximum speed. The interesting thing here is that HSPA technology has the capability to be upgraded to achieve speeds as 7.2 Mbps. While it’s not here yet, AT&T is working on it. In the meantime, these are the advertised numbers.

Real World Speeds

Things always sound so nice in theory:

* Gigli – Starring Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck
* $700 Billion Dollar Wallstreet Bailout
* Rush Hour 3 – Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker
* The Land Before Time 14 – Animated Movie (14? Honestly? How about 2. Just end it)

Like these things that sounded good to somebody somewhere on paper, so do the advertised numbers for mobile broadband. What kinds of speeds can you really expect though? While I wrote an entire article dedicated just to making sense of the real world numbers, I’ll save you some time and give you the raw results. Sprint is clearly the winner overall and provides serious competition in every location. If put together the fact that they’re the fastest, largest mobile broadband network, you’ve got a double whammy.

I’ve personally tested it over 1001 miles of highway at 70 miles per hour (New Orleans to Jacksonville and Tampa to Atlanta). I had my connection get dropped once…for 15 minutes total. That’s solid. In addition to my personal testing, the guys over at the tech blog Gizmodo did a “Definitive Coast To Coast 3G Data Test” in Austin, Boston, Chicago, New York City, Portland, Raleigh-Durham, San Francisco and the Bay Area.

What was their result? Sprint had the highest national average download speed (1.4 Mbps) while AT&T (640 kbps) had the highest average upload speed. As they put it, the test proves “that Sprint is a serious contender in almost any location-and should be taken seriously as a 3G and 4G data service provider”

If speed’s your thing, go for Sprint.


If speed is number one on your list of things to check out, coverage is surely not far behind. As a matter of fact, talking about speed without coverage would be like taking the cheese off a pizza. It’s just not the same.Laptop on Grass

So how do you answer the #1 aching question on everyone’s mind? What’s the coverage like?

While Sprint still has the largest mobile broadband network, Verizon tried to claim the title a couple months back. Their ads and statements about being the biggest quietly vanished from existence. AT&T knows their place as #3 and keeps quiet about it. However, there’s only one way to solve this coverage debacle…

You gotta check. Sure I’ve driven all over Timbuktu with my broadband card, but what’s good for me may not be good for you.

“But how do I check Marc?”

Sprint, Verizon, Alltel, AT&T and T-Mobile all have coverage maps that you can check out for mobile broadband coverage. Get ready to copy and paste your street address into each one of ’em. Keep reading till the end and I’ll show you where to find them.


Verizon advertises itself as the nation’s ‘most reliable network’. After much bubble, bubble, toil and trouble, I found this most startling gem.

It’s true.

Not doing too bad reliability-wise (dropped connections and such) are all the other carriers. It makes me wonder, if they can get data connections so well, what’s up with those dropped cell phone calls anyway?

Sprint is also quite excellent in this department for mobile broadband. AT&T, unfortunately have had numerous I-Phone users complain about the consistency of their advertised 3G network. Definitely one to watch out for. Alltel and T-Mobile on the other hand, have few complaints.

Customer Service

T-Mobile beat out the competition in 1st quarter of 2009. Verizon definitely holds it own this time around (losing to T-Mobile by only one point). Unfortunately, Sprint and AT&T are still dragging up the rear.

So What Have We Learned?

* Sprint = $60 | 5 GB cap | $0.05 cent per MB ($51.20/GB) overage charge.
* T-Mobile = $50 | 5 GB | $0.20 cents per MB ($204.80/GB) overage charge.
* Verizon = $60 | 5 GB cap |$0.25 cent per MB ($256/GB) overage charge.
* AT&T = $60 | 5 GB cap | $0.49 cents per MB ($503.31/GB) overage charge.
* Overage charges can be a beast that will rival your mortgage if you’re not careful.
* Sprint had the highest national average download speed (1.4 Mbps) while AT&T (640 kbps) had the highest average upload speed.
* Sprint currently boasts the ‘largest mobile broadband network’. Not far behind is Verizon followed by AT&T.
* Verizon is the most reliable network. Sprint isn’t doing too bad either.
* Verizon holds the #1 spot for customer service followed by Alltel and then T-Mobile.
* Prepaid mobile broadband can work as an alternative to contract mobile broadband if you have coverage where you need it.

So Who Do I Pick?

If a 5 Gigabyte cap is tolerable for you, Sprint is the go-to-carrier. They’ve got the most going for them right now. Speed, coverage, cost and reliability are on their side. Their overage charges aren’t as ridiculous as T-Mobile’s and from personal experience, customer service for broadband cards is not all that bad. The bill has never fluctuated more than $2.

Verizon is okay if you must, but do not go over the 5 GB cap. There will be hell to pay…literally. AT&T’s lower maximum speed, ridiculous overage charges and less 3G coverage leaves much to be desired for a reliable mobile broadband carrier. Potential is there but this just isn’t the time.

T-Mobile, as usual, is the budget carrier of choice. At $50 a month, it’s great if you’re in a covered area. That’ll be an extra $120 a year in savings or $240 over the course of the contract. As it currently stands, this is the only advantage they have over other carriers. When you consider their limited 3G coverage, they aren’t quite ready for primetime. Instead of paying $60 for limited 3G coverage, you might as well pay $40 with Cricket and not have a contract.