Mobile Internet is the future of computing. Tablets, smartphones and laptops can all benefit from it and I think we’re not far off from seeing the day when laptops start to ship in large quantities with a wired network option (you’ll have to use Wi-Fi or mobile data).
There’s just one problem, really – price. Mobile Internet plans aren’t cheap. Most cost $30 a month on top of an existing cellular data plan, and that’s if you go for a mid-range tier. Some carriers are charging as $60 or $80 for plans with measly bandwidth allowances.
Unlimited plans? Most carriers have abandoned them or are planning to of abandon them, but there are still a few unlimited mobile Internet plans available at affordable prices.
Disclaimer: Mobile plans are regional, and I’m in the United States. These plans were researched from the perspective of someone living in the lower 48.
Boost Mobile – Starting at $50/month
Boost Mobile is a subsidiary of Sprint Nextel that focuses on low-cost plans and phones. Currently they have one of the best plans in the United States, offering unlimited mobile text, talk and Internet use for $50 dollars a month.
That’s only with a basic feature phone – you’ll pay $55/month for an Android phone and $60/month for a BlackBerry. But those are still good numbers. Boost also has a loyalty plan called SHRINKAGE (yea, in all caps) that can save you a few bucks over time.
Boost Mobile has a decent selection of mid-range Android 2.3 phones. Nothing fancy, but perfectly competent stuff. There is a version of the HTC EVO coming to the network soon, though its not available at the time of this writing.
The company does not support wireless hotspots. I’ve read reports of users have success using unofficial tethering apps on rooted Android phones.
Virgin Mobile – Starting At $35/month
This mobile carrier uses the Sprint Nextel network but is not owned by the company. It offers unlimited mobile Internet plans for as little as $35 dollars per month with 300 cellular minutes, which is even less than Boost Mobile.
The catch? Virgin Mobile throttles data over 2.5GB. You can still access data, but you will only be able to access it at sub-3G speeds, so it’ll be pretty slow. The value of this service compared to Boost Mobile will depend entirely on how much data you use. Virgin Mobile has a small selection of inexpensive Android phones, some of which are very good for the price.
Unlike Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile currently offers a mobile data plan and sells two 3G networking devices, one hotspot and one USB adapter. The cheapest plan is $10 but only supports 100MB of data. The $20 plan provides a more reasonable 500MB. Shelling over $50 will provide you with unlimited data, but again, you’re cut off from 3G speed if you go over 2.5GB.
Sprint – Starting At $69/Month
Though not as inexpensive as Boost Mobile or Virgin Mobile, the company that provides network coverage for both has some decent deals of its own.
It has an unlimited everything plan for $99 a month, but those more interested in mobile Internet than text and cell use will love the unlimited data plus plan, which starts at $69.99. It offers unlimited data and messaging plus 450 minutes of talk.
Sprint also as some great mobile broadband plans. Individual devices that support mobile Internet can go online for as little as $19.99 a month, though you’re restricted to 1GB of data.
The more interesting plan is Sprint’s 6GB hotspot plan, which is $50 a month. That makes it a nice alternative to Virgin Mobile, which is technically unlimited but throttles data after 2.5GB. Users who use more than 2.5GB but don’t go over 6GB would be better off with Sprint.
Clear – Starting at $49/Month
Unlike the other options, all of which use cellular 3G or 4G networks and in fact all use the same network (the one managed by Sprint), Clear is a WiMAX carrier. They don’t offer phone plans at all but instead focus on Internet service.
The company’s pricing and plans can vary a bit from location to location, but you’ll generally be paying $49.99 for an unlimited data plan. And it’s truly unlimited – there’s no data throttling at all.
Sounds great, right? But there is a downside. WiMAX coverage is poor compared to cellular data, so you can only use Clear in small areas, mostly urban centers. If Clear is in your area, and you mostly use data in your local area, Clear could be great. Those who travel cross-country will have to look elsewhere.