Cell phone providers offer different mobile broadband plans and services depending on your usage and type of mobile device. You may have an unlimited 5G data plan for your cell phone or smartphone, for example, but a metered or pay-as-you-go mobile broadband plan on your laptop or tablet.
What Is Mobile Broadband?
Mobile broadband, also referred to as WWAN (for Wireless Wide Area Network), is a general term used to describe high-speed Internet access from mobile providers for portable devices. If you have a data plan on your cell phone that lets you email or visit websites over your cellular provider's 5G network, that's mobile broadband. Mobile broadband services can also provide wireless Internet access on your laptop or netbook using built-in mobile broadband network cards or other portable network devices, like USB modems or portable wi-fi mobile hotspots. This on-the-go fast Internet service is most commonly provided by the major cellular networks (e.g., Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile).
Mobile Broadband Service Plans for Laptops
The Big Four cell phone services in the U.S. — Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile — all offer pretty much identical plans for wireless Internet access on your laptop, access up to 5GB per month, with a 2-year contract. If you go over that 5GB, you'll be charged a few cents for each additional MB of data. Also, if you roam outside of your network provider's coverage area, your data cap will be 300 MB/month.
There are also mobile broadband plans with smaller data limits, allowing up to 250MB of data.
Although 5GB of data will let you send or receive the equivalent of over a million text-only emails, thousands of photos and hundreds of songs, the data limit on mobile broadband for laptops is a bummer, given the unmetered data plans, you may be used to from your home internet service or your cell phone data plan. With mobile broadband on laptops, you need to keep an eye on your usage to make sure you don't exceed the cap.
Prepaid Wireless Internet in the U.S.
If you only want to use mobile broadband once in a while (e.g., when traveling or as backup Internet service), another option is prepaid mobile broadband. Some providers offer prepaid options from 75MB to 500MB with no contract. The downside to this is that you wouldn't get any discount on buying the mobile broadband hardware; retail prices for iPhones can start as high as $700.
International Wireless Internet for Travelers
If you're looking for a temporary mobile broadband service, you can rent a high-speed modem for your laptop from prepaid international mobile broadband services, which offer high-speed 3G service in over 150 countries around the world. These services send you the modem and offer pay-as-you-go as well as prepaid options.
Base your choice of provider and a specific plan on how much data you need to use (and how often) and check the wireless providers' coverage maps to make sure you'll be able to access their high-speed service.
How Much Data Do You Need?
If you already have a data plan, you can check your wireless bill to see how much data you use in a typical month and decide whether or not you should go to a lower or higher data tier.