Part 5 on my ongoing post about picking a wireless carrier in the US. I am going to touch broadband data plans. Broadband data plans mean plans that are intended for use with data only devices, such as tablets. We are seeing more and more tablet devices equipped with cellular radio for data. Unfortunately, not many MVNOs offer specific data plans for these devices. In the US, just like phones, most cellular radio equipped Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab lineup are carrier locked, meaning you can only buy them through a carrier (the big 4), and thus you can only use that tablet with that carrier as your provider. The only unlocked Android tablet available is the Nexus 7 3G. Apple iPads, on the other hand, are unlocked. But more on that later.
After searching around, the only MVNO that I can see offering a specific data plan of this type is Simple Mobile, and it’s not cheap. $45 a month gives you 2GB data, and $25 gives you 750MB. That’s not much.
Luckily, the major four carriers are not that bad in their rates on data plans. T-Mobile, the carrier that Simple Mobile uses, offers a much better deal. $15 gives you 300MB for 7 days, $25 for 1.5GB that’s good for 1 month, $35 for 3.5GB, and $50 for 5GB. A lot better than Simple Mobile.
As for AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, again, Apple’s website offers a straightforward comparison between the three. AT&T offers 250MB a month for $15, 3GB for $30, and 5GB for $50. Verizon offers 1GB for $20, 2GB for $30, and 5GB for $50, while Sprint offers 300MB for $15, 3GB for $35, and 6GB for $50. And they all are on a no-contract basis. Of course, AT&T and Verizon allow you to add your tablet into your existing data-shared plan if you are already with them for an additional fee (additional $10 per month without any additional data), but we are not going there in the first place as they already rip you off on your phone plans.
The prices are very similar and competitive with each other. I mean sure, you will not use this as your main internet as it will be prohibitively expensive due to the paltry data quota, but for occasional use, it’s not bad. Plus, you are not under a contract so you can simply sign up for the data plan, and discontinue it when you are not using it.
Now, this won’t mean much for most people as like I said, most Android tablets with cellular radio in the US are provider locked. If you want a Samsung Galaxy Tab with 3G/LTE, well, pick the carrier you love as it will be locked to that carrier. In my view, for Android, there is only one choice, the Nexus 7 3G. Not only it’s fairly inexpensive (just $300 for the 32GB with 3G model), it has penta-band HSDPA radio (thus works with both AT&T and T-Mobile’s 3G) and unlocked. No LTE, so stop reading and go to your favorite carrier if you want LTE. Google sells two kinds of the Nexus 7 3G, one with AT&T SIM, another one with T-Mobile SIM. Don’t worry, the device itself is not locked and you can use either carriers later, you just pick which SIM you want to get from Google.
The interesting device is the iPad/iPad mini with LTE. For LTE speed, you have to pick the iPad that specifically said for the carrier you want to, ie. if you want Verizon LTE, you have to pick the Verizon iPad model. Now, all iPads with cellular radio also have GSM/HSDPA radio in them, and that is unlocked. That means you can put in an AT&T SIM on your Verizon iPad, and it will connect to AT&T just fine. The catch is, no LTE, just HSDPA/3G. Still, it’s not a bad compromise, plus any iPad you buy works with any GSM carriers overseas (again, LTE being the exception. Apple gives a bit more detail on which model supports which LTE in what country).
For the Nexus 7 3G, both T-Mobile and AT&T offer prices that are neck to neck with each other. At the low end, for $15, T-Mobile gives you 300MB, but only lasts for 7 days, while AT&T gives you 250MB that lasts for 30 days. At the top end, they are the same, 5GB for $50. In the middle, T-Mobile has $25 for 1.5GB and $35 for 3.5GB while AT&T has $30 for 3GB. Very close to each other. Personally, if my area has good T-Mobile coverage, I would go with T-Mobile on the Nexus 7 3G as T-Mobile’s HSPA+ is faster than AT&T’s. However, AT&T may offer better coverage in some areas.
If you are buying an iPad with LTE, go with Verizon. Verizon’s $20 for 1GB for 30 days is hard to beat in terms of value. It is usually enough for casual browsing, and Verizon’s LTE coverage is better than AT&T and Sprint. Plus, the iPad is unlocked, so you can put in AT&T SIM for 3G access later on if you want to, or even T-Mobile’s (if T-Mobile has refarmed their 1900 band for 3G in your area).
Now, you must be wondering that there are some smartphone plans that have better prices than these. The big one is T-Mobile’s $30 a month with 5GB data. Well, T-Mobile is not stupid. I personally have tried this, putting the SIM with that plan on my Nexus 7 3G. Nada. T-Mobile blocks devices that are identified as tablets on that plan. I would think the same applies with other carriers/MVNOs too.
How about tethering? You already pay for a smartphone plan, right? Well, sure. If your phone is not restricted by your carrier, and you only use your tablet outside wifi access occasionally, you can save some money by buying wifi only tablets, and simply use your phone as a portable hotspot when needed. The downside is the inconvenience having to set up your phone all the time to do this, and you are draining both your phone’s battery life and your data quota on your existing plan. Considering the data plans I mentioned here are under a no-contract basis, personally I would rather have a cellular radio equipped tablet. Having that instant data anywhere really increases the enjoyment in using the device.
- If you look at T-Mobile’s website for the mobile broadband SIM, T-Mobile sells them for $7. That’s a rip-off. Meanwhile, they are selling the SIM for the monthly 4G phone plans for 99 cents a piece. Well, guess what, you can activate that 99 cent SIM for a broadband plan, so stock up and don’t be tricked into paying $7. 😉
- If you already activated a SIM (let’s say AT&T) on an iPad, you can use the same plan on the Nexus 7 3G, but you won’t be able to access your account via the Nexus 7’s browser nor AT&T’s website. They will say you have to do it on the iPad itself. There is a workaround, via this old AT&T’s website (note the copyright year, 2010!). You can log-in to your account and you can access it normally.
That’s all for broadband data plans. More tips and tricks in the future.