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Head to head: Mobile Broadband Plans

Published
Checking your e-mail on the road has never been easier thanks to a host of mobile broadband services that keep your laptop connected when there's no Wi-Fi. But which of these data plans offers the most affordable rates? We looked at each carrier's bottom and top tier plans to find out.

Entry Level Plans

AT&T DataConnect
Verizon Wireless BroadbandAccess
Sprint Mobile Broadband
Sprint XOHM WiMax
Network
3G
3G
3G
4G
Price
$20/mo
$39.99/mo
$59.99/mo
$30/mo
Data Limit
10MB
50MB
5GB
Unlimited
Data surcharge
$0.0019
(per KB)
$0.25
(per MB)
N/A
N/A
Download Speeds*
700 kbps to 1.7 Mbps
600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps
600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps
2 to 4 Mbps
Upload Speeds*
500 kbps to 1.2 Mbps
500 Kbps to 800 Kbps
350 to 500 Kbps
0.5 to 1.5 Mbps
Availability
Nationwide, International
Nationwide, International
Nationwide, International
Baltimore, MD,
Philadelphia, PA
Early Termination Fee
$175
$175
$200
None
*These are rated speeds. Actual speeds vary depending on coverage.

Top Tier Plans

AT&T DataConnect
Verizon Wireless BroadbandAccess
Sprint Mobile Broadband
Sprint XOHM WiMax
Network
3G
3G
3G
4G
Price
$60/mo
$59.99/mo
$59.99/mo
$50/mo
for two devices
Data Limit
5GB
5GB
5GB
Unlimited
Data surcharge
$0.00048
(per KB)
$0.25
(per MB)
N/A
N/A
Download Speeds*
700 kbps to 1.7 Mbps
600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps
600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps
2 to 4 Mbps
Upload Speeds*
500 kbps to 1.2 Mbps
500 Kbps to 800 Kbps
350 to 500 Kbps
0.5 to 1.5 Mbps
Availability
Nationwide, International
Nationwide, International
Nationwide, International
Baltimore, MD,
Philadelphia, PA
Early Termination Fee
$175
$175
$200
None
*These are rated speeds. Actual speeds vary depending on coverage.

And the winner is...
Unfortunately, when it comes to mobile broadband, there's no clear cut winner. We know AT&T Wireless offers the most expensive plans (both entry level and top tier), but depending on where you live, the other carriers may or may not offer the best service for your needs. For instance, Sprint's XOHM WiMax plan is clearly the winner in price and data allowance (there's no data cap), but currently, it's only offered in Baltimore, MD and Philadelphia, PA. The network is expected to spread to Washington D.C. and Chicago, IL, but that still leaves a huge portion of the country uncovered. For broader coverage, your best bets are Verizon and Sprint's EV-DO-based mobile broadband network. (Just make sure their networks cover the areas you'll be traveling to.)

Things to watch out for
Before you sign up for any plan, there are some hardware requirements that must be met. All of the services require a mobile broadband modem (pictured is Samsung's XOHM ExpressCard for $59.99.) that lets you connect to the provider's network. These modems usually connect to your laptop via an ExpressCard slot or USB port and cost around $50.

Before signing a contract, you'll also want to note the data surcharges for each provider. Sprint is the only provider that offers its customers a "soft cap," meaning they'll let you exceed your data limit without charging you additional fees. Abuse of this soft cap, however, could lead to penalties, suspension of your account, or surcharges. And lastly, remember that many of these services will hit you with a termination fee if you cancel your plan before the end of your first year.

The road ahead
Sprint's XOHM WiMax network may be the only 4G network available, but Verizon and AT&T Wireless are hoping to change that when they finish a joint 4G network in 2009. Named Long Term Evolution (LTE), this network will use the 700MHz spectrum (which will allow it to travel through walls and offices buildings) and offer similar speeds to WiMax. However, LTE won't be commercially available until 2010. That makes WiMax the most promising alternative, that is, if you can wait for it to reach your city.

Louis Ramirez is dealnews' Features Editor.
 

Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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