Beyond the move to 4G networks, the latest trend in mobile broadband is the wide availability of prepaid options. Prepaid mobile broadband used to be prohibitively expensive, and few carriers offered it. Now, small prepaid carriers as well as major carriers like Verizon have jumped on the prepaid bandwagon. This is great news for consumers, because more competition in the prepaid marketplace leads to better prices.
No reviewer specifically tests the prepaid plans from the major carriers, but you can expect performance to be similar to what was found in the contract plans discussed above. Verizon offers the widest array of prepaid plans, but only for 3G -- you can't get prepaid 4G from Verizon. You can get a 100 MB day pass (*Est. $15), a 300 MB week pass (*Est. $30) or monthly passes up to 10 GB (*Est. $80). There is no long-term contract required, and you can use the same USB dongles or laptop cards that are available for the contract plans. One of the downsides of the prepaid plans is that you'll have to pay full price for these devices, which are available for free or a reduced price when you sign a two-year contract. Verizon's mobile hotspots and USB modems cost $100 or less with a two-year contract, but $250 to $270 without a contract. Our new report on wireless cards covers both USB modems and mobile hotspots.
T-Mobile's prepaid plans, like its contract plans, run on its HSPA+ 4G network, reverting to 3G where 4G isn't available. T-Mobile 4G proves slower than Verizon 4G in tests, but it's faster than Verizon 3G (which is all Verizon offers its prepaid customers). With T-Mobile 4G, PC World testers get 2 to 4 Mbps download speeds via laptop in most of the 13 cities where they test, while Verizon 3G promises only 600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps. With T-Mobile prepaid, you can get a 100 MB weekly pass (*Est. $10) or monthly passes for 1 GB (*Est. $30) or 3 GB (*Est. $50).
AT&T's DataConnect Pass offers only relatively small 3G plans: one day (*Est. $15 for 100 MB), one week (*Est. $30 for 300 MB) or one month (*Est. $50 for 1 GB). As with other carriers, you'll need to pay full price for the USB modems and mobile hotspots. The AT&T USBConnect Adrenaline 3G modem and MiFi mobile hotspot both cost $50 with a two-year contract, but $300 otherwise.
Sprint doesn't offer a prepaid plan, but Virgin Mobile's USA Broadband2Go runs on Sprint's 3G network. First you'll need to buy a Virgin Mobile USB modem or mobile hotspot (*Est. $80 to $125), and then select one of three usage plans: 10 days/100 MB (*Est. $10), one month/500 MB (*Est. $20) or unlimited (*Est. $50 per month) -- although Virgin Mobile reserves the right to throttle your speed if you use over 2.5 GB on your "unlimited" plan.
PCMag.com tested Virgin Mobile's Broadband2Go in July 2009 and gave it a very good rating, but user reviews at BestBuy.com -- which sells the Virgin Mobile USB dongle and mobile hotspot -- are mixed. Both devices get average ratings of about 3 stars out of 5 in more than 80 reviews. A number of users have problems with installation, which requires a call to customer support.
DataJack is a relatively new company that offers 5 GB of 3G mobile broadband per month (*Est. $50) with no contract. That's less than the major carriers charge: Verizon charges $80 for a 5 GB monthly pass (for USB modem users), and T-Mobile charges $50 for 3 GB per month. The DataJack USB modem costs about $80 with shipping, and DataJack advertises download speeds of 600 Kbps to 1.7 Mbps -- about the same as Verizon 3G. While this seems like a good deal compared to other prepaid options, the editors of Mobile-Broadband-Reviews.com point out that DataJack doesn't specify which carrier's network it uses. You can check DataJack's online coverage map to see if the service is available in your area. Mobile-Broadband-Reviews.com says several customers who use DataJack report no "major problems" on HowardForums.com, a discussion board dedicated to mobile phones, but some say they've been unable to reach the company. "For now, this is a service that may best be watched from the sidelines until more customers check it out," Mobile-Broadband-Reviews.com says.