Cutting the (Other) Cord: The Best Wireless Internet Options
A reader asks: I'm intrigued by the idea of getting rid of my DSL Internet service, and switching to one of these 4G wireless services I've seen advertised. My question is whether it's actually viable at this point. I have a desktop and a couple laptops, and two phones we use on our home Wi-Fi network, and wonder if these services can handle all that. I have no idea how to research this, so just tell me what to get!
Dear Reader: Like jetpacks and 'Minority Report'-style computer interfaces, totally wireless high-speed Internet access is one of those tech fantasies that just can't get here soon enough. That's not to say versions of this wireless wonderland don't already exist. All of the major cell phone providers, along with a few third-party players, sell devices that nominally fill this particular bill. It's just that they don't quite do it as well as they seem to promise, and, in some cases, service is woefully lacking.
Consumers have long been able to purchase or rent USB antennas that plug into laptops to grant mobile Internet access, and recent years have seen relatively zippy 3G speeds (or at least speeds on par with low-end DSL home service). Most work rather well, but the data plans can be pricey. And, since only one device is able to go online at a given time, antennas aren't a viable alternative to a home network, which allows multiple gadgets to surf the 'Net simultaneously.
Recently, phone companies have been promoting what are called mobile wireless hotspots. The idea is that these devices grab a cellular data signal, and then beam the signal to other Wi-Fi devices. (At this point, that's virtually everything: laptops and netbooks, desktops, smartphones, Blu-ray players, Netflix boxes, PS3 and XBoxes, and so on.) So, instead of having a single USB device going online at a time, these devices allow five (or in some cases, up to eight) gadgets to use the Internet simultaneously. These hotspots come in a few varieties and flavors, such as dedicated home units or portable units with rechargeable batteries that allow you to pack your home network wherever you go. It's an obviously compelling proposition for those who don't want the hassle or expense of subscribing to Internet service at home, at work and at a vacation spot.
The other technical upgrade to boost this already attractive-seeming deal is that several of these devices are 4G (or hybrid 3G/4G), which in practical terms means that they're capable of pushing data from 3 to 6mbps, with peaks at 10mbps or more (i.e. fast). That's on par with most standard cable Internet and higher-end DSL services -- but without wires! A few providers even offer packages including a mobile hotspot as well as a separate USB antenna, so that you can leave the hotspot at home and take your laptop on the road. In theory, this is all convenient, ingenious and awesome.
But now, we must examine the inevitable downsides, which we regrettably visit all too often.
The first is an obvious quibble, but demands attention. Mobile hotspots rely on cellular signals, and, depending on where you live and travel, you simply may not be in range of a solid one. On the other hand, you may live in a particularly congested area, and find that the data (or speed) isn't as reliably zippy as you'd expect. (More on that in a bit.) It's a familiar situation to the millions of disgruntled iPhone users who continue to gripe about AT&T's overwhelmed 3G network.
Another factor is the cost, which ranges from as low as $35-per-month to as high as $80-per-month. At first blush, that might seem reasonably comparable to home Internet access, when you consider the flexibility a mobile hotspot offers. There's some truth to that, but it brings up the one gaping pitfall that makes the whole idea a non-starter for us. Most providers -- granted, not all -- have a monthly data cap, usually five gigabytes. And with most providers (again, not all), going over that cap will either trigger fees for each extra megabyte (usually about $0.10 per MB and up), or what is called "throttling," which is when the provider drastically slows down the speed of your Internet service for a period of time.
This is a big problem for typical, 21st-century Web users. Let's start with the data cap. A 30-minute Netflix video is about 85 megabytes (an HD Hulu or YouTube video is similar), a typical album is 40 to 50 MB, a single iTunes TV episode is 250 MB or so, and a movie can weigh in from anywhere between 1.5 GB to 4 or more. (The HD version of 'Wall-E' is 7.5 gigs!) We could go on, but we'd humbly suggest that, in the case of a household with several data-consuming devices and modest video use, they're going to crush 5 gigs in days, not weeks. And that brings us to the idea of throttling.
Several services, most notably Clear (see below), loudly and boldly offer unlimited data downloads. Notice we, or rather they, specify data downloads. They sneakily neglect to point out that, should you exceed what they consider a "reasonable" usage amount (which is purportedly around five gigs-per-month), they have automated software that kicks in and drops the "throughput" of your service severely, sometimes to speeds as slow as dial-up. While they aren't technically limiting the amount of data you can download, they really are paralyzing your connection -- by slowing your Internet service to a near-useless crawl.
Now, you might argue that's better than accidentally racking up a several-hundred-dollar bill with overage charges. Fair enough. Still, providers like Clear are being (at best) unclear about this system, which, if the hundreds of anecdotal reports we've read are to believed, is seriously problematic. We've even read about some providers punishing their users by throttling service for full billing periods. It's ugly, and we suggest that these specific companies get out ahead of the problem and fess up to the limits of their services for now, rather then selling them as a viable alternative to wired home Internet (which, by the way, typically has data caps around 250 gigabytes, if any at all).
The good news is that a few services, notably Sprint and Virgin Mobile USA (which uses Sprint's network) offer plans that apparently don't cap data or throttle throughput, at least as of this writing. (Sprint offers unlimited data for 4G only, which isn't available nationwide; Virgin is for 3G service, but is more widely available.)
All in all, we're not convinced that cutting off wired Internet service is a viable option for most households at this point -- other than those who don't download media or stream video, or those who live in rural areas that suffer under dial-up. Now, if you are still with us, we'll take a basic look at the mobile hotspot offerings of the major national providers, as well as some third-party options.
Mobile Hotspot MiFi 2372
Clear Spot 4G+
Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot by Sierra Wireless
T-MobileAs of this writing, T-Mobile doesn't offer mobile hotspots, although it does have 3G and 4G USB dongles for individual devices.
Verizon Wireless Fivespot Global Ready 3G Mobile Hotspot
Virgin Mobile USA
Virgin Mobile USA MiFi 2200