Wi-Fi hotspots are the simplest solution if they're available where you need Internet connections. Otherwise, the best way to get mobile broadband depends on whether you travel mostly within your home metro area. These are the options:

3G mobile broadband from cell phone carriers

Unless you live in a major metropolitan area, 3G is probably the fastest mobile broadband you can get for now. (Faster 4G is discussed below). All of the major cell phone carriers -- Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile -- boast 3G networks that blanket much of the nation, allowing you to connect your smartphone, tablet or laptop to the Internet on the road. This gives you mobility beyond Wi-Fi hotspots, but at possibly slower connection speeds -- just under 1 Mbps download speed, on average, according to a 2010 PC World review that tested all four major carriers' 3G network speeds on laptops in 13 cities.

These data plans are all very similar, with costs around $50 or $60 per month with a monthly data limit of 5 GB (more than enough for most users, experts say) or $80 to $90 for a 10 GB plan for heavy users (those who stream a lot of video or music, etc.). You can get smaller plans, too. Most carriers charge extra fees if you exceed these monthly usage limits, although T-Mobile simply reduces your network speed for the rest of the month. AT&T and T-Mobile include free Wi-Fi at hotspots with some of their plans, and Verizon includes them with all plans, making it easier to stay within a mobile broadband limit.

To use mobile broadband with a laptop, you may need to buy a USB modem or mobile hotspot from your carrier; these usually cost $100 or less if you sign up for a two-year data contract or $250 to $300 with a no-contract prepaid data plan. You can read about the best USB modems and mobile hotspot devices in our new report on wireless cards.

Beyond areas with 3G access, older and slower technology automatically comes into play -- EDGE for AT&T and T-Mobile, and EVDO for Sprint, Verizon and Cricket. Download speeds are much slower -- sometimes as slow as dial-up Internet. If you are forced to use a carrier's non-3G networks, EDGE is usually rated much pokier than EVDO by expert and user reviewers.

"Fixed" 3G wireless broadband in metro areas

Cricket Broadband (*Est. $40 to $60 per month) provides 3G wireless service in several metro areas. Although it's wireless broadband, Cricket service is available only in these particular metro areas, with no coverage beyond them, so it's not as mobile as the 3G plans offered by other cell phone carriers. Like other carriers, Cricket caps its 3G plans -- you can buy a 2.5 GB, 5 GB or 7.5 GB monthly plan with no contract.

4G mobile broadband in metro areas

Fourth-generation (4G) mobile broadband is available in about 100 U.S. cities, with more on the way. The 4G mobile broadband is faster than 3G, and it can sometimes even beat Wi-Fi, DSL and cable Internet connections, but your speed can vary wildly -- depending on what carrier you have, what 4G device you're using and what city you're in. Download speeds range from less than 1 Mbps in some cities to almost 10 Mbps in others in PC World's 13-city test of the four major 4G carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon).

Different carriers use different 4G technologies, and some are faster than others. Verizon's LTE (Long Term Evolution) network proves the fastest, delivering its promised 5 to 12 Mbps download speeds in several tests. Sprint and Clearwire Clear share a WiMAX network, advertising download speeds of 3 to 6 Mbps. AT&T and T-Mobile use HSPA+; neither carrier says what average speeds you can expect, but they manage about 2 to 4 Mbps download speeds on laptops in PC World's 13-city test. AT&T is planning to launch its own LTE network in five cities in summer 2011.

For now, 4G plans cost about the same as 3G plans -- and while major carriers no longer offer unlimited plans on their clogged 3G networks, you can still get unlimited 4G plans from Sprint and Clearwire on their shared 4G network. Expect to pay about $50 or $60 a month for a 5 GB plan, plus $100 to $300 for a modem or mobile hotspot for your laptop. Some of the major carriers offer prepaid or month-to-month 4G plans. Our new report on Wireless Cards covers both 3G and 4G USB modems and mobile hotspots.

If 4G mobile broadband is available in your locale, and if that's where you primarily need mobile broadband access, it's certainly worth a trial because of the faster speed and cost savings; you can use it on your desktop computer at home, too. If you travel farther very often, you can buy a 4G plan that automatically switches to your carrier's 3G network when 4G coverage is not available. 

Cell phones tethered to a laptop

Data plans for cell phones and smartphones often cost less per month than data plans for laptops. For this reason, some owners connect their laptops to their cell phones or smartphones (via USB or Bluetooth) to get online when Wi-Fi isn't available. Some carriers offer "tethered" data plans authorizing this usage, but this option is not available for all smartphones. See our blog entry on how to turn a smartphone into a modem for more information on tethering.

Keep in mind that mobile broadband isn't designed to replace home-based wired broadband Internet access -- at least for now. For one thing, most plans limit you to 5 or 10 GB per month, and most cell phone services forbid certain intensive uses. Mobile broadband can serve as a good backup to wired broadband when the electricity is out or connections are down. Of course, it also gives you Internet access when you're away from home.

Experts say to consider these factors in choosing a mobile broadband provider:

  • Doublecheck prices and terms of service. Mobile broadband is a fluid arena with frequent changes, so be sure you're clear on the current plan before you sign up.
  • Do you use Wi-Fi a lot? If so, AT&T and T-Mobile include free Wi-Fi with some of their plans, and Verizon includes it with all plans, which can save some of your mobile broadband data usage.
  • Where do you need an Internet connection? Beyond Wi-Fi hotspots, 3G networks provide coverage over much of the U.S. and Europe. Within some metro areas, 4G networks provide faster connections at the same (or sometimes lower) cost, and more cities will be getting 4G in the coming year. If you're in a rural area, you may be covered only by a slower network or be connected only by "roaming" in a different network. Each major carrier includes a coverage map that details where you can find 3G or 4G mobile broadband.
  • Ask other users who travel the same areas about their connection reliability and speed. Objective tests find that even within the same city or metro area, results can vary dramatically depending on location.
  • Be mindful of usage caps. Most plans from cell phone carriers top out at a 5 or 10 GB cap on monthly bandwidth usage, with slowdowns, extra fees or even service termination incurred if you exceed the limit. The limits could be a problem if you use the Internet more than about three hours a day, or stream or download movies and music regularly, making wired broadband a better choice. For ordinary Internet surfing, however, a 5 GB plan is fine. You could look at more than 33,000 ordinary web pages a month, or about 1,100 pages a day. On the other hand, if you only want to check email occasionally on your laptop, you may want to look into smaller, cheaper plans.
  • Ask about extra fees and taxes. These can easily add another $10 to $20 to the monthly bill.
  • Check terms of trial periods. Some owners report unexpected restocking fees when canceling during the "free" trial period.
  • Look for prorated early termination fees. Some carriers require a two-year contract for 4G service, although most offer no-contract 3G plans. If you do sign a contract, beware of the hefty fees imposed if you cancel before the end (*Est. $175 to $200). Ask if the provider prorates these fees.

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