How to Buy a Wireless Modem

By: Sascha Segan

Why limit your on-the-go Web surfing to hot spots when you can get online almost anywhere with a cellular modem or MiFi-style hotspot? Here's how to pick the right service and device to bring mobile broadband to your laptop.

It's an exciting time to get Internet on the go. Less-expensive 3G service plans and new 4G networks are making wireless cellular modems faster and more affordable than ever. In many cases, you don't even need to sign a contract.

Wireless modems aren't just for PCs any more, either. Many connections will work other gadgets too, like your iPod Touch or iPad. (They can even turn those devices into phones, with the right voice-over-IP software.) Depending on your hardware, plan and usage, you'll pay anywhere from $20 to $60 a month for nationwide connectivity at speeds of up to 6Mbps, which is as fast as some cable connections. Here's what you need to know to pick the right service and hardware.

First, Understand the Limits
Finally, wireless broadband isn't for everyone. If you download a lot of movies and video, do it over a wired connection. Even "unlimited" wireless broadband providers may throttle your speeds if you download tens of gigabytes every month. Avid gamers will probably want to stick with wires, too, as wireless networks have much higher latency and lag than DSL and cable connections.

Choose Your Carrier
The wireless broadband arena is more competitive than ever. Earlier this year, we tested six 3G and 4G networks nationwide, finding AT&T to be the fastest but least reliable, and seeing a lot of potential in Sprint's and T-Mobile's new technologies. Our Fastest Mobile Networks 2010feature spotlights network performance in 18 cities, so make sure to see if we checked network performance near you.

AT&T's nationwide 3G is based on a fast HSPA 7.2 technology, but the carrier has had some reliability problems that showed up in our tests. That said, AT&T has been improving over the past year. Along with Verizon, it's the highest-priced provider, offering 5GB/month for $60 and requiring a contract.

Cricket covers about a third of the nation with somewhat slow, but reliable 3G. This smaller provider used to be the price leaders, but Sprint and T-Mobile have matched Cricket's flagship service plan. Cricket offers 2.5GB/month for $40, 5GB for $50, and 7.5GB for $60 with no contract. If you go over the max, Cricket won't cut you off, but it will slow you down until the next month starts.

Sprint offers two intriguing options. For $60/month, you can get a 3G/4G modem or hotspot that works on Sprint's WiMax network where that's available, or on 3G where it isn't. WiMax is in dozens of cities, and coming to more every month, but it isn't nationwide. Sprint's Virgin Mobile brand, meanwhile, sells modems that work exclusively on 3G for $40/month, unlimited use, no contract. That's currently the best wireless broadband deal in the U.S.

T-Mobile's HSPA+ is super-fast and spreading. While it's a 3G technology, we found it to be as fast as Sprint's 4G in many locations—we're talking around 5Mbps. T-Mobile offers 200MB/month for $25 or 5GB for $40, and like Cricket, it will throttle speeds rather than cutting you off if you go over your limit on the $40 plan. Verizon Wireless doesn't have the fastest speeds, but its coverage is second to none. The carrier charges Cadillac prices, though: $40/month for 250MB or $60 for 5GB with a two-year contract, and even more if you want prepaid use. US Cellular, Cincinnati Bell, and other smaller carriers also offer modem solutions, but we haven't reviewed them.

Can't get coverage where you live? WISPs (wireless ISPs) generally use larger, home-based modems, but they're available in many (though not all) small towns where traditional broadband or cellular service can't be found. What's more, they don't carry 5GB limits.

To Tether Or Not To Tether?
If you decide to make the 3G jump, cellular modems aren't the only option. You'll find a wide range of laptops and netbooks with integrated 3G from almost every manufacturer, except Apple. In our tests, these devices typically deliver solid speed and reception—but of course, you've got to buy a new system, and you may be yoked to one wireless carrier for the life of the PC.
A growing number of smartphones, such as Verizon's Motorola Droid X and Sprint's HTC EVO 4Galso have integrated "wireless hotspot" modes, which let them connect other devices via Wi-Fi. You have to pay an add-on fee, usually around $20/month, and you'll typically get around 2GB of data use. This is a good solution for occasional use, but since it drains your phone's battery and can block phone calls (depending on the phone used), it isn't an all-the-time solution. Also, most smartphones that don't have wireless hotspot modes can frequently work as USB modems through a tethered cable connection, for a similar price.

Hardware Types
So you've decided to go for a cellular modem: there are three main types including cards, USB sticks, and MiFi-style hotspots.
If you're going to use one PC with your modem, get a card or USB stick. Cards are convenient because you can pop one in and forget it, but you have to have a laptop with an ExpressCard/34 or PC Card slot. USB sticks are fussier, but they're easy to move between devices and they work with PCs that don't have card slots. With both cards and USB modems, you'll probably have to load some sort of drivers and connection software onto your PC or Mac.

Mobile Wi-Fi hotspots such as Novatel's MiFi 2200 and Sierra's Overdrive use a cellular connection to let you hook up multiple PCs, iPads, iPhones, and other mobile devices to the Internet via Wi-Fi. They're very easy to operate, and you typically don't have to load any special software onto your PC to connect with one. But they give you yet another gadget to tote charge, and connections can be slower than with a dedicated modem (especially over a 4G network) because of the whims of Wi-Fi signals.

Extras and Bonuses
Some modems offer features beyond simple connectivity. Many current modems add GPS functionality to your laptop, which I haven't found all that useful; the GPS radios in modems are less sensitive than those in smartphones, and it's a bit awkward to use your laptop for navigation. A more-useful feature, many modems have connectors for external antennas, which can really boost signal strength in rural areas. Sites like sell third-party antennas for most modems. I also really like the LCD display on the Sierra Overdrive and the graduated lights on the Cricket USB Broadband Modem A600, both of which report the strength of your 3G signal right on the device.

Beware: Overseas Surfing Will Cost You
Traveling abroad? Taking your laptop and modem along isn't as easy as it might seem. AT&T modems will work almost everywhere in the world, but if you're leaving the country, you should get a temporary data add-on to your service plan. You can opt for from 20MB to 200MB of data usage ($25 to $229 per month). If you don't have one of these plans, you'll be charged up to $20 per megabyte (that's MB, not GB) for data overseas. Ouch. T-Mobile modems also work abroad, but add-on plans are not available—it's just $15 per megabyte outside the U.S. and Canada.

If you're with Verizon, your modem will work in Canada, and the company offers a global USB modem that works with a $129.99-per-month plan for use in other countries. Otherwise, you're stuck with a $20-per-megabyte rate. Sprint will also sell you special international cards and modems but offers no overseas data-roaming plan; if you go to Europe, for instance, you'll pay a flat rate of $16 per megabyte.
Unlocked world-capable modems do exist, and in theory, you can put a foreign SIM card into an AT&T or T-Mobile modem to get local service at low rates. But in practice, I've found this to be nearly impossible to achieve. Modem and OS settings are so arcane, especially when you're dealing with customer service in a foreign language, that I can't push this as a practical solution.

If you need Internet access outside the U.S., use your hotel Wi-Fi, hunt down Wi-Fi hot spots or use a BlackBerry with an international data plan, which is much less expensive than a cellular card plan.