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What is 4G, and where can I get it?

Mobile broadband allows you to connect your laptop to the Internet wirelessly. If you need a wireless connection  only once in a while, then Wi-Fi hotspots at cafes and hotels will probably suffice. But if you need connectivity in other places, mobile broadband is an excellent option. Several types of mobile broadband are available, at varying speeds, data limits and prices. The best type depends mainly on your travel patterns and plans, but also on availability.

Fourth-generation, or 4G, mobile broadband is the very fastest type. As of this writing, 4G covers only about 100 U.S. cities, but carriers are racing to expand their networks. The 4G networks deliver download speeds of about 3 to 12 megabits per second (Mbps) or more -- as fast as wired DSL and cable -- for a price comparable to 3G plans. The 4G carriers use one of three technologies:

  • LTE (Long Term Evolution) networks offer the fastest theoretical speeds -- and the fastest real-life speeds in tests. Verizon uses this type of 4G network, and AT&T says it is launching launch LTE in a few cities in  summer 2011.
  • WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) offers slower theoretical and real-life speeds than LTE. Sprint and Clearwire share a WiMAX network.
  • HSPA+ (Evolved High-Speed Packet Access) is what AT&T and T-Mobile use. It's recognized as 4G by authorities -- but reviewers say it's really upgraded 3G. "Think of it as a stopgap or bridge between 3G and 4G," say editors at DigitalTrends.com. "It still uses the old interface and standards implemented years ago for 3G, and lacks the response time of LTE and WiMAX. It's like comparing a Formula 1 race car to a souped-up Toyota Camry; the Camry may move fast, but it wasn't designed to race."

Verizon Mobile Broadband: Best 4G for most people

Experts recommend Verizon Mobile Broadband (*Est. $20 to $80 per month) as the best 4G option for most people.

"Verizon's 4G LTE is for real," PC World editors conclude after a 13-city test in early 2011. Testers routinely clock 7 or 8 Mbps download speeds on their laptops -- twice as fast as second-place T-Mobile Even More webConnect (*Est. $30 to $85 per month). PCMag.com's tests, which cover 21 metro areas, yield average download speeds ranging from about 7 to 12 Mbps, depending on the region.

Verizon goes faster in other tests, topping out at an average 13 Mbps in the New York City area in Computerworld's February 2011 4G shootout. "I think it's safe to say that Verizon LTE is blazing fast," Computerworld's Brian Nadel writes.

Now, the caveats: Verizon 4G covers only 55 metro areas, although Verizon is planning to cover 145 markets by the end of 2011. Meanwhile, if you wander outside of the 4G area, you'll fall back on Verizon's nearly nation-blanketing 3G network, which reviewers find very reliable -- but with much slower speeds (from 600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps for downloads, Verizon says).

Experts also caution that Verizon 4G might slow down as more customers and devices sign on. Indeed, Laptop Magazine's Mark Spoonauer -- who gave Verizon top marks in his March 2011 4G report card -- was complaining by May that Verizon 4G constantly drops his connection during his daily commute. "I'm seeing four or five drops daily -- in one direction," Spoonauer says. Smartphones seem to work more smoothly than Verizon's laptop modem, which he says has trouble switching between 4G and 3G on the fly as he moves between coverage areas. "I can't tell you how many times I've actually lost work or had an instant messaging chat cut off." A two-day Verizon 4G outage in April 2011 eroded some reviewer confidence, too.

In addition, Verizon no longer offers an unlimited plan. You have to stay under a data cap -- ranging from 1 GB (*Est. $20 per month) to 10 GB (*Est. $80 per month) -- or pay an overage charge ranging from $10 to $20 per GB, depending on your plan. Verizon has hinted that it will launch family data plans sometime in 2011, in which the whole family can share a big monthly bucket of gigabytes. Verizon also offers some pay-as-you-go plans, but only for 3G -- 4G requires a contract. Verizon does include free Wi-Fi access with all plans, with thousands of hotspots nationwide at airports, restaurants, bookstores, etc.

Data caps aren't a problem for some: A summer 2010 Nielsen study found that the average smartphone data user gobbles up less than 300 MB each month, although that's growing rapidly, PC World reports. Laptop and tablet users will probably devour a lot more data. To help you figure out how much data you need, PC World publishes a helpful chart showing how much you can download under various data caps. For example, four two-hour high-def movies would eat up the entire 10 MB of Verizon's priciest plan, but you could download more than 3,000 songs.

Clearwire Clear Mobile Broadband: Unlimited use, but not available everywhere

If you want unlimited mobile broadband, you've got two choices: Clearwire Clear Mobile Broadband (*Est. $20 to $55 per month) and Sprint Mobile Broadband (*Est. $45 to $90 per month) -- and both share the same WiMAX network. Sprint charges $5 more per month for its unlimited 4G plan ($50 versus $45), and its customer service ratings range from mediocre to dismal. Clearwire gets its share of customer complaints, too (more on that in a moment), but overall, experts prefer it to Sprint if you really want unlimited access.

In expert tests, Clearwire 4G delivers its promised 3 to 6 Mbps download speeds -- not as fast as Verizon's LTE network, but as good as or better than the average U.S. wired home Internet speed (PC World reports that it's 3 Mbps). Experts also praise Clearwire's simple modems and hotspots that make it easy to plug and play. Besides its 4G unlimited plan, Clearwire also offers an unlimited plan that's capable of switching between 3G and 4G as you travel (*Est. $55 per month) and a 200 MB 4G plan (*Est. $20 per month). Clearwire 4G is available only in 82 cities, but if you live in a covered area, Wired magazine's John C. Abell says Clear 4G is "a blisteringly satisfying experience," even when streaming TV shows – it's good enough to use as your main Internet connection.

But is Clearwire's unlimited plan really unlimited? Some customers say no. In fact, 15 Clearwire customers have filed a lawsuit, saying Clearwire deliberately slowed their network speeds after they started doing heavy downloading, such as streaming Netflix or Hulu. Plenty more customers have complained of the same thing on various websites. "Yes it's very easy to set up. It also works really well for about a month," one Clearwire user tells The New York Times. "Then if you actually use it for anything that requires any speed at all, say for instance streaming a movie, they'll cap you," and you'll get speeds under 1 Mbps for the rest of the month, some users say. In the same article, a Clearwire spokesman say the company does restrict bandwidth for heavy users at times. So does Verizon, reviews point out -- but Verizon explains clearly when and why this will happen. Sprint, for its part, swears in a spring 2011 ad campaign that it won't throttle speeds on its 4G network (which it shares with Clearwire), but Sprint's bottom-scraping customer satisfaction rating at J.D. Power and Associates and "Customer Service Hall of Shame" ranking at MSN.com keep it from being a top pick. Sprint is the majority owner of Clearwire and has said it will use Clearwire's 4G network at least through 2012.

AT&T could buy T-Mobile

T-Mobile Even More webConnect (*Est. $30 to $85 per month) can't quite match Verizon Mobile Broadband in reviews. Quite a few sources praise T-Mobile's top-rated customer service, good 4G coverage (100 metro areas as of this writing) and free Wi-Fi at thousands of locations nationwide (airports, Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, etc.). But T-Mobile's HSPA+ network can't keep up with Verizon's 4G network speeds: Various testers (in various cities, with various devices) get 1.5 to 8 Mbps on downloads with T-Mobile, versus 5 to 12 Mbps or more with Verizon. At the time of this update, T-Mobile had just switched on faster 4G in 55 cities, with twice the theoretical speed of its usual 4G -- but we found no real-world tests of this brand-new faster service yet.

Prices aren't much different from Verizon. If you're willing to sign a two-year contract, you can get from 200 MB (*Est. $30) up to 10 GB (*Est. $85 per month). T-Mobile also offers no-contract mobile broadband plans, from a 100 MB week pass (*Est. $10) to a 3 GB month pass (*Est. $50), but without the free Wi-Fi. Verizon includes free Wi-Fi on all of its mobile broadband plans, including month-to-month deals.

AT&T wants to buy T-Mobile, but experts say the deal won't happen quickly -- if at all -- because government regulators have to approve it first. "Although this news has us in shock today," PC World wrote of the possible buyout in March 2011, it "is probably at least a year away."

Unfortunately, AT&T DataConnect (*Est. $15 to $60 per month) gets the worst reviews of any major mobile broadband carrier. If AT&T does buy T-Mobile, it could drag down T-Mobile's customer service -- and drive up prices, ConsumerReports.org says. AT&T scrapes the very bottom of three separate customer service surveys, and Laptop Magazine gives AT&T a grade of "F" for its 4G service. Plans start at 250 MB (*Est. $15), topping out with different prices for 5 GB of 3G (*Est. $60 per month) or 5 GB of 4G (*Est. $50 per month). Yes, the 4G plan actually costs less than a straight 3G plan. "That means you get to pay $10 extra for theoretically slower speed," points out Marc Aarons at Mobile-Broadband-Reviews.com. Unlike the other carriers, AT&T won't sell you more than 5 GB of data a month.

And it's no speed demon, reviews say: On smartphones, AT&T's HSPA+ 4G network averages less than 1.5 Mbps on the download in most of the 13 cities in PC World's latest test, and less than 3 Mbps on laptops. AT&T has said it will launch a new LTE network (the same 4G technology Verizon uses) this summer in five cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.

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