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Mobile broadband: Internet access almost anywhere

Mobile broadband, often called wireless broadband or wireless Internet, sets you free from Wi-Fi hotspots, such as those at Starbucks, when you're on the go. Instead, it lets you connect your laptop or tablet to the Internet via cell phone networks. Most regions use 3G (third-generation) mobile broadband networks. Some cities already enjoy faster 4G networks -- but not all 4G is created equal, tests show. The best 4G can outrun your wired home Internet connection, although it's not necessarily as reliable, experts find. Some carriers' 4G networks prove little faster than 3G.

To find the best mobile broadband, we looked at reliable expert tests of all four major carriers --AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon -- as well as less well-known brands such as Clearwire and U.S. Cellular, a regional carrier. If you're looking for information on cell phone service, see our reports on cell phone plans and prepaid cell phone plans.

By far, the most rigorous tests come from PC World: Experts there test the four major carriers' 3G and 4G networks, sampling them in more than 20 different locations in 13 cities, using both laptops and smartphones. We also found excellent expert tests and buying advice for mobile broadband ISPs at Gizmodo.com, Laptop Magazine, Mobile-Broadband-Reviews.com, Wired, Computerworld, DigitalTrends.com and MSNBC.com.

To get users' opinions, we checked several customer satisfaction surveys. ConsumerReports.org publishes the best one, polling more than 58,000 of its subscribers as part of its overall cell phone service ratings and breaking down the results city-by-city for 23 metro areas. PCMag.com, J.D. Power and Associates and MSN.com conduct slightly smaller, but still valuable, reader surveys. DSLReports.com collects user ratings and puts out an updated chart each week, ranking the major and minor carriers from best to worst. And at CNET, you can look up your city and see how the major networks perform, based on real-life data speeds that readers submit using a special app.

Mobile broadband is a moving target for reviewers. Carriers are constantly upgrading their networks, covering new cities and changing their prices. Top review sources have kept up nicely, publishing up-to-date snapshots that make it pretty easy to see which companies offer the best (and worst) mobile broadband.

But in the ever-changing mobile broadband market, experts say that even the worst companies have the potential to redeem themselves. For example, this year's big loser -- AT&T -- gets the worst possible scores for nearly everything (including data performance and customer service) in one major customer survey, ties with Sprint for worst customer service in another and gets a grade of "F" from Laptop Magazine for its 4G efforts. But AT&T is planning to launch a faster 4G network in a few cities this year, and it's also trying to buy T-Mobile (which gets excellent ratings for customer service), if it can get government approval.

"Arguably, AT&T service has nowhere to go but up after a merger" with T-Mobile, ConsumerReports.org says -- although, "T-Mobile service might get pulled down."

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