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Cutting the (Other) Cord: The Best Wireless Internet Options

Mifi


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.

AT&T

AT&T offers two plans for the $300 MiFi 2372 (or $50 with two-year contract), which is 3G-only, has an internal four-hour battery and allows for up to five devices to connect at a time. You can spend $35 for 200MB per month, or $60 for up to 5GB. Having suffered from spotty iPhone service for a few years, we can't heartily recommend AT&T for anything. We have, however, read several independent tests confirming AT&T's 3G service is consistently the fastest of all the 3G services in real-world use.
Mobile Hotspot MiFi 2372

Clear

Clear offers two 4G hotspot devices, a 4G-only unit and the 4G+, the latter of which does 4G, or 3G when 4G isn't available. Each can handle up to eight wireless devices at a time, and run for $100 or $225 respectively with a contract (although they are currently free for a limited time). The 4G+ has a nifty LCD screen, which displays battery life, throughput speeds, connection type and time. There is a bevy of Clear plans from which to choose, starting at $45-per-month. Despite reading accounts of many happy customers getting blazing-fast 4G service, we've heard far too many anecdotal accounts of drastic service problems during peak hour usage -- exactly when you'd want to use it -- as well as dodgy or evasive explanations from Clear customer service for throughput throttling.
ClearSpot 4G
Clear Spot 4G+



Sprint

Sprint's Overdrive branded Sierra Wireless hotspot handles 4G and 3G signals for up to five other users, and nicely has an external LCD screen displaying signal strength, battery level and network connection status. Unlike competing devices, the Overdrive ($50 with two-year contract) is somewhat oversized for being easily portable, and apparently has a short battery life of under three hours. Sprint's plan is wonderfully straightforward: unlimited 4G usage with a 5 GB cap on 3G for $60 per month. We have yet to hear of throttling issues with Sprint's 4G service, but that may change in the future.
Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot by Sierra Wireless

T-Mobile

As of this writing, T-Mobile doesn't offer mobile hotspots, although it does have 3G and 4G USB dongles for individual devices.

Verizon

Verizon offers two 3G-only hotspots, the MiFi 2200, and the Fivespot (which works internationally); both can handle up to five other devices and cost $270, or free with two-year contract. Verizon offers a mystifying range of plans, from day, week or monthly rate prepaid plans (from $15 for 100 MB to $80 for 5 GB) to contract plans that go from $20 for 1 GB up to $80 for 10 GB. Verizon is apparently one of the companies that may penalize you for going over your monthly allotment by throttling your service for the next billing cycle -- a real problem if Internet access is mission-critical for you. At any rate, Verizon's service isn't remotely competitive for 3G; you won't find better than Virgin Mobile (see below).
MiFi 2200
Verizon Wireless Fivespot Global Ready 3G Mobile Hotspot
Verizon Wireless

Virgin Mobile USA

Virgin offers the same 3G-only MiFi 2200 as Verizon (which allows for as many as five devices to connect), but for a reduced $150. Plus, instead of having an annual contract, you pay as you go -- either $10 for 100 MB over ten days, or $40 for unlimited use for one month. Yes, you are reading that correctly. Assuming you have reliable 3G access in your neighborhood, and don't get too upset if video takes a while to buffer (or gets jaggy), then Virgin offers the most competitive hotspot package we've seen.
Virgin Mobile USA MiFi 2200

Tags: 3G, 4g, att, cellphones, Clear, Clear4g, justtellmewhattoget, Mifi2200, MobileHotspot, SierraWireless, sprint, T-Mobile, verizon, VirginMobileUsa, wireless internet, WirelessInternet