Starting around the middle of 2010, the new generation of 4G wireless networks offered by Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile in North American metro areas finally started to gather momentum and generate intense interest by all type of wireless users.
Up until then, the decision to purchase a 4G mobile phone or hotspot was often met with some hesitation, perhaps due to the fact that there was a lot of terminology and techno-slang being thrown around, but not a whole lot of actual 4G networks that were up and running.
Of all the mobile devices that were being sold at the time, mobile hotspots were perhaps the most impacted by the switchover of 3G-to-4G technology. Since 4G can offer speeds of 5 to 15 times faster than 3G, the impact on mobile hotspots would be dramatic and immediate – multiple users could finally share one device and achieve speeds that would often equal that of their wired broadband connections at home or in the office.
For some mobile hotspot owners, a 4G mobile hotspot could finally make the case for replacing a wired broadband connection at home, becoming an all-in-one traveling voice communications, streaming video and internet connected hub - something that was clearly out of the question on 3G based devices and networks.
Factors to consider when choosing a 3G vs. 4G Mobile Hotspot
In general, 4G mobile hotspots and data plans are more expensive – Even with provider rebates, the average costs is about $50-$100 for the device when signing a two year service agreement. 3G hotspots, such as the ever-popular MiFi 2200 are often available for free if you sign up for a contract. 4G Mobile Hotspots sold without contract will be even more expensive, upward of $300 for the hotspot itself.
Contracts vs. Prepaid Options:
For the most part, to get a Free 4G mobile hotspot AND the lowest cost data plan (in terms of dollars per gigabyte) you will need to sign up for a two year commitment with one of the major wireless carriers. Starting around the beginning of 2012, Prepaid 4G mobile hotspot devices and monthly data "passes" started to become available. Most notably, Verizon released their 4G LTE mobile hotspot, the MiFi 4150L as a prepaid offering. Verizon sells the hotspot for about $130 and the no-contract, no-commitment data plans were priced about 15 to 20% higher than their 4G LTE contract offer. T-Mobile and AT&T also introduced similar prepaid 4G plans for their mobile hotspots.
2012 has also seen some really aggressive offers - the "Cheapskate Option" 3G mobile hotspots and data plans. Second tier providers such as NetZero, DataJack and TruConnect offer ridiculously low monthly prices for prepaid 3G data service, starting at around 10 bucks a month. These low cost 3G providers sell the mostly older mobile hotspots, such as the Novatel MiFi 2200, usually under $100.
Limited 4G availability:
The fasted 4G download speeds in the world are not going to benefit you if the signal is not available where you work, live or plan to travel. While 4G rollout and penetration is progressively increasing every month, there is still a measure of calculated risk if you purchase a 4G device on the premise that service will be coming in the not so distant future. What 3G lacks in speed when compared to 4G is made up in its massive signal coverage and availability in virtually every area in North America.
Confusing “4G” standards:
With millions (or billions ?) spent by Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile advertising their 4G is the fastest, most reliable, most-available…. it can be utterly confusing to decide on which 4G solution is most suitable, and cost effective for your individual needs. AT&T and Verizon’s LTE clearly offer the best download and upload speeds, but have far less coverage than T-Mobile and AT&T's slower HSPA+ 4G Networks. Clear Wireless (a Sprint business partner) and their proprietary WiMax 4G technology lags behind in speed and nationwide coverage compared to both LTE and HSPA+, but is the only 4G data service to offer a unlimited 4G monthly usage.
While the wireless industry brags about how cool and great Wireless 4G is, the fact is that for a significant percentage of users who can benefits from a mobile hotspot, the moderate yet reliable access speeds of 3G are quite suitable.
If you plan on using significant amounts of data, say 3 to 10 or more Gigabytes per month, month after month, your best option is likely going to be a contract 4G data plan. This way you’ll get the hotspot device for the lowest cost (often free) and you’ll typically pay the lowest rates for data on a “per gigabyte” basis. If you don’t use a large and predictable amount of data per month, yet still need the fastest download speeds, consider the prepaid AT&T Elavate Mobile 4G Hotspot–it will cost you a little more to use, but will likely save you the most money in the long term.
There really is no reason to commit to a contract on for a 3G mobile hotspot, as there are lots of low cost and flexible options for available nowadays from firms like TruConnect, NetZero and DataJack.