Why Pay for Mobile Broadband?
The top performers in our review are Verizon Wireless, the Gold Award winner; H2O Wireless, the Silver Award winner; and T-Mobile, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a mobile broadband provider to meet your needs, along with details on how we arrived at our ranking of the top 10.
Mobile broadband offers the ultimate in online freedom. Sure, any smartphone with a data plan can get online, but laptops and Wi-Fi-only tablets aren’t so fortunate, and tethering isn't always an optimal solution. If you compute on the go and need reliable, ubiquitous web access for all your devices, mobile internet is your best bet.
Most mobile broadband plans are offered by the same cell phone providers that fuel our smartphones. If you already have cellular service, you can usually buy a mobile hotspot or USB dongle, tack it onto your plan and play around with your data allocation until you find a setup that meets your needs. Conversely, if you're on a prepaid cell phone plan that's affordable but doesn't offer the best service, you might consider starting a separate account with a network that has the all-presence you need. Most good-quality hotspots and USB sticks retail for between $100 and $200, but you can usually get one for free if you're willing to sign up for a two-year contract.
How We Evaluated the Providers
Unlike most of our reviews and comparisons, we consider price when we rank wireless internet providers because how much you have to pay each month is probably a significant factor in your buying decision. It's not, however, the most important factor; above all else, we consider quality of service.
Since it's in their best interest to inflate numbers, providers can't be counted on to accurately report their coverage quality and speeds. Crowdsourcing options like Ookla's Speedtest and the popular OpenSignal both let you test download speeds, but for an accurate, independent impression of coverage quality and reliability, RootMetrics is the gold standard. We use RootMetrics' RootScores to guide our analysis of network quality, aggregating them with crowdsourced data and our own tests and experience to arrive at our final grades.
It’s worth noting that the providers we review have no input or influence over our evaluations. Our testing methodology wasn’t provided to any of them in more detail than what’s available through reading our reviews, and they didn’t get to see the results before publication.
The Smartphone Option: To Tether or Not to Tether?
Every modern smartphone can act as a mobile hotspot for other devices via tethering. Your phone has the ability to create its own miniature Wi-Fi network, and you can connect to that network from your laptop or tablet. When you do this, your other devices make use of your phone's cellular connection.
Tethering is undeniably convenient, but there are three reasons why it's not terribly reliable:
Smartphones aren't optimized to route network data. The router you have at home is able to handle many connections at once because it has specialized firmware. This built-in software is phenomenal at sorting and prioritizing network connections so that every computer on a Wi-Fi network feels equally fast. Smartphones don't have this firmware.
You can lose your connection if you make or receive a call. Depending on your cellular network, your phone may not be able to make a phone call and keep its network connection at the same time. If you're browsing the web on your computer and someone calls you, goodbye internet.
It drains your phone's battery. Active internet connections sap your phone's power. Even if you keep your phone in your pocket doing nothing but maintaining that internet connection, you can still find yourself without enough juice to finish out the day. Mobile hotspots often have their own sizable batteries built in, while USB sticks make use of your laptop's internal power.
Don’t Expect Unlimited Data
A few of the major providers offer unlimited data options on their smartphone packages. Most people rarely use enough data on their smartphones to warrant an unlimited package, but it’s far easier to rack up data on a laptop or tablet. The bigger screens demand higher-quality videos, and big videos need big allocations.
Because you can chew through so much data with a mobile hotspot so quickly, no provider offers unlimited mobile broadband. Yes, some will advertise unlimited data, but you’ll always have a high-speed data cap and be throttled to extremely slow speeds once you hit that cap. Throttled speeds are better than nothing, but they aren’t anywhere near fast enough to let you download sizable files or stream video.
Mobile Broadband Services: Our Verdict and Recommendations
Whichever plan you decide on, remember to look at the quality of the provider's coverage first. It's frustrating to spend the money on a mobile hotspot or USB dongle only to find that you can't connect to the web when you need to because of poor coverage.
The Best Mobile Broadband Provider: Verizon
With the finest mobile hotspot and the strongest network coverage and reliability in the country, Verizon Wireless storms into our number one position. It is, quite simply, the best of the best. When you think of Verizon you probably think “expensive,” but in truth, Verizon’s plans are on par with most of the competition. When you factor in the sheer variety of options, it earns one of our highest pricing grades, coming second only to T-Mobile.
The Value Pick: T-Mobile
T-Mobile’s prices are staggeringly good. It’s 2GB plan is just $20, half what you’d pay at Verizon, and knocking that up to 6GB costs just $35 total – compared to Verizon’s $60 for the same allocation. Obviously T-Mobile’s service isn’t as strong as Verizon’s, and when you’re shopping for mobile broadband internet, coverage is usually king. If you’re willing to accept the limitations of T-Mobile’s service, though, you’ll save a ton of money.
Buyer Beware: FreedomPop
FreedomPop is a company that claims to give you 500MB of free data every month – all you have to do is buy the hotspot. It’s an intriguing offer, but it comes with a lot of catches and gotchyas that will frustrate even the most frugal customer. For this and other reasons, we’ve chosen not to include FreedomPop in our lineup of the 10 best portable internet providers. There are hidden fees and charges, including a charge for not using the hotspot at all in a given month; it runs on a substandard version of Sprint’s network; and it tries to trick its customers into signing up for paid features that are free at just about any other carrier.
Whatever provider you end up picking, we're here to help. Read our articles on mobile broadband, scan our comparison chart above, and use our grades to guide your choices. You'll be delighted with the mobile internet service you find.