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3G is slower than 4G, but it is available in more areas

Until 4G networks are more widespread, slower 3G mobile broadband remains the dominant type. Unfortunately, experts are so enamored with 4G that they've stopped testing 3G. The latest 3G tests we found by major expert sources were published a year ago -- and a lot has changed since then, with network upgrades and new devices.

If you can't get 4G, the best way to figure out which 3G plan to go with is to look at customer surveys. ConsumerReports.org, J.D. Power and Associates and PCMag.com have all surveyed thousands of customers within the past several months, to see which wireless carriers are the best. You'll probably also want to pay attention to the carrier's 4G prowess, if you're likely to get 4G in your area in the near future. It's also important to note that while carriers are building out their networks, they're offering hybrid 3G/4G plans.

In recent tests and surveys, Verizon Mobile Broadband (*Est. $20 to $80) is the preferred provider overall, thanks partly to its ever-expanding, fastest 4G network -- but reviews also appreciate its widespread, reliable 3G network. Verizon also gets high marks for customer service and tech support, second only in that area to T-Mobile Even More webConnect (*Est. $30 to $85 per month). When PCMag.com tested three major mobile broadband providers -- Verizon, Sprint and AT&T -- it gave the Editors' Choice award to Verizon. "If you need wireless data in the U.S., Verizon Wireless is the best choice. It has the most comprehensive 3G network, and it wins awards every year for coverage, consistency, and call quality," writes Sascha Segan.

Verizon offers a range of 3G contract plans that cost the same as its 4G plans, from a 1 GB monthly plan (*Est. $20 per month) that has an overage rate of $20 per GB to a 10 GB plan (*Est. $80 per month) that has an overage rate of $10 per GB. If you don't want to commit to a contract, you can buy a prepaid 3G data plan ranging from a 100 MB day pass (*Est. $15) to a 10 GB month pass (*Est. $80).

Verizon's 3G technology, EVDO, has a maximum download speed of 3.1 Mbps, but it averages about 600 kilobits per second (Kbps) to 1.4 megabits per second (Mbps), Verizon says. A 13-city 3G test at PC World in 2010 finds slightly slower speeds with Verizon than other providers; PC World reviewer Mark Sullivan says Verizon's growing popularity has strained its network, leading to slower speeds. Download speeds are decent in most cities, fitting into Verizon's advertised range, but upload speeds rarely exceed 500 Kbps (and Verizon promises between 500 and 800 Kbps).

In the end, PC World chose AT&T as the winner of its 2010 3G tests. In the past, AT&T's 3G network was strained by the popular Apple iPhone, and many users reported slow speeds, especially in big cities. However, Sullivan finds that AT&T's network improvements have made a big difference. "In our latest tests, AT&T's download speeds were 67 percent faster on average than those of the other three largest U.S. wireless providers -- Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon," Sullivan writes.

AT&T's speeds leapt ahead in this year's PC World tests, up to about 2.5 Mbps download on average -- but the other carriers improved more, thanks to faster 4G technologies that AT&T doesn't have yet. AT&T sets its data caps lower than the other providers, with contract 3G plans ranging from 250 MB (*Est. $15 per month) to 5 GB (*Est. $60 per month); missing are the 10 GB and unlimited plans you can get from other carriers. AT&T also gets dismal customer service ratings in surveys at PCMag.com, J.D. Power and Associates and elsewhere.

Sprint is another major provider of 3G mobile broadband, and like AT&T, the carrier invested a considerable amount of money in upgrading its network in 2009. Overall, reviewers say Sprint 3G is reliable but not very fast. "Sprint had the lowest average download speed across all our tests among the Big Four carriers," Sullivan says. In his test, Sprint achieves average download speeds of 795 Kbps and upload speeds of 396 Kbps. Sprint has reliable signals -- PC World testers achieved "a solid connection" in 94 percent of trials within coverage areas. 

In an older test at PCMag.com, Sprint is one of the fastest carriers, but it gets poor marks for coverage and customer service. "All in all, it's a good choice, but not the best," writes Sascha Segan. Sprint offers three 3G mobile broadband plans: 3 GB (*Est. $45 per month), 5 GB (*Est. $60 per month) and 10 GB (*Est. $90 per month). All include unlimited 4G where available. If you exceed the monthly limit for 3G, you'll be charged $0.05 per MB.

T-Mobile, another major mobile broadband provider, doesn't sell separate 3G plans; its plans are the same whether you're in a 3G or 4G area. A smaller provider, Clearwire Clear, is known mostly for its 4G offerings, although it does have a small 3G network.

Tethered cell phone mobile broadband

It's often possible to tether a laptop computer via a USB cable to a cell phone or smartphone. This uses the phone as a modem for the laptop, via the phone's data service. Some users apparently improvise this, but carriers want you to sign up for tethered service at a fixed fee. AT&T offers tethering plans (*Est. $45 per month for 4 GB) for some smartphones, including the BlackBerry and the Apple iPhone. We tell you how to tether your laptop -- or even the Apple iPad -- to your smartphone on our blog.

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