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Best prepaid mobile broadband in the USA

By danwarne     Filed under: internet, broadband, iPhone, iPad, smartphones, WiFi, laptops, 3G, Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, USA, mobile broadband, AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Virgin Mobile USA, ReadyBroadband, SIM cards, Travel SIMs, iPhone 4, Micro-SIMs, EV-DO Rev. A, EDGE, USB modem, MiFis, Huawei, Novatel MiFi 2200, Global roaming, 3, Virgin Mobile, BigPond Wireless, Hotspots, prepaid mobile broadband, SIM card cutters

Avoid global roaming costs by getting connected locally in the USA.

Check your email on your phone a few times while you're in the USA, and you could end up with a $500 global roaming bill for data. Here's how to avoid that bill-shock, with prepaid mobile broadband.

Unlike Australia, getting your laptop or smartphone hooked up to the net has traditionally been nearly impossible in the US unless you're prepared to take a two year contract. US telcos have historically limited prepaid SIM cards to voice only.

Although there are a lot of free WiFi hotspots in the States (in every Starbucks, for example), this doesn't really help if you want to use Google Maps on your phone when you're lost, nor does it allow you to make/receive Skype calls free of charge on your mobile when you're on the move.

Fortunately, telcos in the US are starting to change, now offering some prepaid mobile services with data access included.

The main catch is that all the mobile networks in the US are set up a bit differently, so you can't just take your smartphone to any network and expect to get hooked up. In this article, we've looked at which telcos offer what, and what your hardware options are.

Avoid global roaming data charges - prepaid mobile broadband in the US

Verizon prepaid mobile broadband

Verizon has the best reputation for speed and coverage but is a CDMA network, which means you can't use your Australian 3G smartphone on it at all. The main options for Aussies travelling to the US are a prepaid CDMA mobile broadband modem purchased from Verizon -- but that is really only suitable for laptop use, unless you take a portable WiFi router with you that supports Verizon's modems. Verizon offers a 1GB prepaid plan with 1 month validity for $US50, or if you really want to use the net with abandon, you could go for the 5GB plan for $US80.

Verizon's prepaid USB modem (USB760) costs $US189.99, which means your total outlay for internet access while you're in the US would be $US239.99 as a minimum. It works on Windows and Mac, though not the latest version of Mac OS X 10.6 -- only 10.4 and 10.5.

There's also the Novatel MiFi 2200 for $269.99 (plus plan fee) which is a pocket-sized WiFi hotspot that gets its internet from the Verizon CDMA network, and allows you to connect up to five devices via WiFi.

T-Mobile prepaid mobile broadband

T-Mobile runs a 3G network, and they do offer prepaid mobile broadband. However, they use a very unusual radio frequency which Australian smartphones don't support -- 1700MHz.

Nonetheless, although your phone can't access the T-Mobile 3G network, it'll drop back to 2G EDGE coverage, which can be surprisingly fast. It runs at at about 200Kbit/s and is absolutely fast enough for Google Maps searching -- though not fast enough for voice calls, and it makes for pretty sluggish laptop use.

There are several prepaid plans available, but the $US70 plan with 2GB data and unlimited national calls is the only one we'd recommend, as the lower plans have a very small data allowance.

There's actually a better option than prepaid plans that we discovered on a recent trip to the US -- "T-Mobile FlexPay" which allows you to get contract plans without a contract, and pay in advance each month. You don't have to have a credit check and if you don't pay your bill, the service just switches off. On a practical level, it's exactly the same as prepaid, but you get better plans that even offer unlimited internet access. These plans are strictly for use in a smartphone -- but we found the SIM card worked fine in a Huawei portable WiFi hotspot. The $US79.99 plan also includes unlimited calling within the USA, which is handy if you do use the SIM card in your phone.

T-Mobile also offers a $99 USB modem for prepaid broadband use if you do want access to the 3G network. The prepaid mobile broadband plan that goes with it costs $50 for 1GB usage, within 30 days.

There are no higher-usage mobile broadband plans, but you can get a SIM card designed for phone use and use it in a pocket WiFi device to get 2GB data, with unlimited talk time.

We used a T-Mobile SIM card while in the US with a Vodafone Australia Pocket WiFi device ($119, plus $75 to be unlocked for use on other networks). It only connected at 2G/EDGE speeds due to T-Mobile's odd 3G radio frequency, but data was fast enough for searching maps, checking email and messaging on an iPhone 4. (Got an iPhone 4 or iPad that requires a MicroSIM? Check the end of the article, where we discuss how to get US micro-SIM cards.)

AT&T Prepaid mobile broadband

AT&T is probably the most compatible network for Australian handsets and modems, because it uses the same 850MHz network frequency that Telstra uses for Next G.

However, that doesn't mean AT&T makes it easy for travelers to get hooked up -- only its company-owned stores seem to know about the prepaid mobile broadband options, called "DataConnect Pass". A franchised kiosk in the Westfield San Francisco Center flat-out denied that AT&T offered prepaid mobile broadband.

You should be able to pick up an AT&T SIM card free of charge from an AT&T store, and then activate it with a DataConnect Pass by going to this web address (you'll need to do it at a WiFi hotspot somewhere -- AT&T won't do it for you in their store.)

You can only use your SIM with DataConnect Pass on the AT&T network. Although this sounds obvious, in the US, the country is so large that there are many small regional mobile networks that AT&T has domestic roaming agreements with. You can't roam on these networks with an DataConnect Pass -- AT&T's official line is that you need to be in a "dark or medium blue" area of their Pricing for AT&T DataConnect Pass plans is $US30 for 300MB, expiring in 7 days, or $US50 for 1GB, expiring in 30 days. We would avoid the $US15 for 100MB "daypass" -- it's poor value compared to the $US30 plan, unless you're only going to be in the US for one day.

The DataConnect Pass plans also give you unlimited access to AT&T WiFi hotspots, which may be handy, as hotspots might be faster than AT&T's 3G network -- it has attracted a lot of negative commentary for slow data speeds, blamed on the number of iPhone users on the network.

The main catch with AT&T is that they say you can only use their SIM cards with devices that are approved for use on the AT&T network, and they do require your phone or modem's IMEI serial number at the time you activate your SIM card online. A list of approved devices is here. We haven't tested whether a non-approved device would be accepted in the online sign-up -- if you have, please let us know in the comments below.

If you're planning a trip to the US and want to see if your phone will work with a DataConnect Pass, you can buy one on eBay for less than $20 delivered to Australia (just search for AT&T SIM or AT&T Micro SIM), and then begin the signup process on AT&T's website, entering your new AT&T SIM card ICCID and your existing phone or modem's IMEI number. If either are not accepted, the website will tell you -- and you won't have actually had to spend any money.

AT&T doesn't advertise any modems available for outright purchase on its website, but you can buy an AT&T LG USB TurboConnect modem at Walmart for $99.98. It works on both Windows and Mac OS X 10.4 or above. Walmart stores are generally not in big cities though -- they are "big box" stores found in suburbs, so they may not be easy to get to. Annoyingly, the Walmart website does not accept Australian credit cards.

If you need help while you're there, AT&T's DataConnect Pass tech support line is on +1 888 334 3781.

Other options…

Virgin Mobile US prepaid mobile broadband

You can buy a MiFi 2200 pocket 3G/WiFi hotspot from Virgin Mobile (US) for about $140 from many places. Virgin Mobile uses the Sprint CDMA network, which doesn’t have a great reputation for speed or coverage. However, the plans are pretty sharp -- $40 for unlimited data, over 30 days.

ReadyBroadband prepaid mobile broadband

You can buy ReadyBroadband modems for a rather incredible $49.99 at the electronics counter of Walgreens, which are dotted on every block of US cities -- they're a cross between a 7-11, an IGA and a pharmacy. It runs on the Sprint network -- the same one Virgin Mobile uses -- but the plans aren't as good as VM's. 2GB costs $75, with 30 day expiry, or 1GB costs $45, expiring in 30 days.

Using an Australian iPhone 4 in the US

There are only two major 3G/GSM carriers in the US -- AT&T and T-Mobile. AT&T is the Apple-blessed seller of the iPhone, and is the only carrier that officially offers Micro-SIM cards. However, officially, it does not support prepaid use of iPhones on its network -- and we haven't yet been able to confirm whether it is possible to get an unactivated Micro-SIM and activate it with a DataConnect Pass, then use it in an iPhone.

T-Mobile, on the other hand, can give you a SIM card that will technically work in an iPhone 4 (in 2G EDGE mode only), but won't physically fit, because it'll be a full-size SIM, not a Micro-SIM.

You can get around this by cutting your T-Mobile SIM card down to size in order to use it in your iPhone 4 if you're game, or just buy a $5 MicroSIM cutter from Amazon.com to be delivered to your hotel.

Using an Australian iPad 3G in the US

All iPads are sold unlocked, and they have Apple and AT&T's blessing for connection to the AT&T network there. You just have to get an AT&T SIM card, put it in your iPad, and activate a prepaid mobile broadband plan by putting your credit card details into it. Apple has a step-by-step guide on how to do it.

Without doubt, this is one of the most hassle-free ways of getting online while you're travelling in the US, though you can only use the internet on the iPad -- you can't tether it to your laptop or smartphone.

There is one catch -- AT&T will only activate the account against a US credit card address, so an Australian credit card will not work. The way around this is to buy a prepaid credit card from a convenience store, and type a US address such as your hotel address into your iPad. Because prepaid credit cards inherently do not have a fixed address associated with them, the credit card issuer will accept any address as being valid, and the AT&T signup will go through OK.

You can also buy an iPad in the US and be certain it will work on Australian networks when you get home too -- all iPads sold worldwide are identical, and they do not have any network restrictions.

Best mobile broadband option when travelling to the US

What's the best option for prepaid mobile broadband in the US? There really isn't a one-size-fits-all answer -- it depends on what you want to do.

Get a US SIM card for a smartphone: If you want to get your smartphone online while in the US, and your smartphone is listed in AT&T's list of approved devices, AT&T's DataConnect Pass is probably the easiest option, because you won't have to buy new hardware. (AT&T says DataConnect Pass cannot be used in an iPhone, even though it is listed in the approved devices list.)

Get a US SIM card for your 3G laptop: if you have an 850MHz-capable 3G modem or laptop that is listed in AT&T's list of approved devices, an AT&T DataConnect Pass is an inexpensive option, because you won't have to buy a new modem. However, if your modem came with software that is set up only to work with Optus/Vodafone/Telstra or whatever, it might be tricky to figure out how to set it up to connect AT&T, and you may end up having to buy an AT&T modem for $100.

Get a US SIM card to use in a MiFi: Again, the AT&T DataConnect Pass may be a good option here, but the Huawei E5 devices that are very popular in Australia are not listed in AT&T's approved hardware list. A T-Mobile smartphone $50 plan may be the best option here, with 2GB data -- although you will only get 2G/EDGE speeds of around 200Kbit/s.

Get a US SIM card for an iPhone 4 in the US: because AT&T steadfastly refuses to provide any form of prepaid service for use in an iPhone, the best option here -- surpisingly -- is to get a T-Mobile SIM Card, cut it down to Micro-SIM size, and put it in your iPhone 4.

Get a US SIM card for an Pad in the US: you can go into any AT&T company store (we recommend avoiding the franchised kiosks in malls) and pick up a free micro-SIM for your iPad. Then activate using the procedure listed above.

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About danwarne

Dan is a tech enthusiast who frequently qualifies for enhanced airport security screening due to the number of cords and gadgets stuffed into his cabin bag.

 

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