As the editor of MobileHotspot.com, I’m always on the lookout for new mobile hotspots and data plans that are a good fit for my readers on a limited budget, as well as those who simply don't want to pay for expensive data plans that they don't need . I recently spotted an offer for a prepaid, no-contract MiFi mobile hotspot with 500 megabytes of nationwide coverage for 15 bucks a months. Needless to say this caught my eye, however my pessimistic side automatically assumed, “what’s the catch”?
The MiFi 2200 device and low cost prepaid data plan is from a company with one of the coolest name I have seen in a while: TOAST.net. To get a better sense of what TOAST.net was about, I got a hold of Clint McCormick, wireless accounts manager for TOAST.net for some inside perspective on what their company was about. The five or ten minute phone call I expected turned out to be closer to 45 minutes and I came away from the call with a pretty clear understanding of the TOAST.net mission and market niche they are aiming to serve. Normally, I don’t dwell on the company history and background of the products I am reviewing, but I thought the TOAST.net story was pretty interesting and worth sharing.
The History and Evolution of TOAST.net
TOAST.net is a born and bred, privately held American company who are located in the state of Ohio. TOAST.net was originally founded as an Internet service provider (ISP) way back in 1996. At first, TOAST.net offered dial-up , web hosting, and business solutions for clients in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Throughout the late 90’s TOAST.net built a loyal network of clients on the strength of their product line and highly personalized support and service.
But that was a long time ago. For today's "wireless generation", wireless access to the internet in 1996 might as well have been 1906. So what happened to TOAST.net in the 16 years since?
The fact that TOAST is still around in 2012 is a pretty strong testament to the heart of the company. Over the past decade and a half, TOAST.net had to reinvent themselves to survive the global shift from dial-up to wired and then wired to wireless broadband. Few mid-size companies doing what TOAST.net did in the mid 90’s could have survived to 2012 unless they were consistently at the top of their game. We’re talking about competition back then that included AOL, Netcom as well as the predecessors of today’s big four wireless giants, including Sprint, AT&T and Verizon. TOAST.net’s smaller size became a competitive advantage, and by the early 2000’s, while billion dollar ISP's and Telcom giants got crushed under their own debt load, TOAST.net’s quick reflexes to it's targeted customers allowed them to get a head start on areas where there was an under-served market – in this case inexpensive, prepaid mobile broadband access with a level of local support simply not available in other wireless providers.
The thing that really impressed me about the TOAST.net’s mobile broadband offerings is that they're actually supplied and supported by a real company, with local employees right here in the United States. Call them for support and you'll speak to an agent in their Ohio office, not an overseas mega-call center. The support teams, engineers and customer agents all work together in the same location. How often have you done business with a mobile provider where you could actually voice comments or concerns to the owners of the company? Not many (if any) I would assume. Usually when I’m dealing with a company with an extremely personalized level of support, I usually expect to pay “boutique” (well above average) prices for their products and services. TOAST's MiFi device and data access prices are in many cases better than Verizon, Sprint and AT&T as well as the largest prepaid providers like Virgin Mobile.
The TOAST.net MiFi Mobile Hotspot
OK – sorry if I went on too long back there – so let’s get down to business and take a look at the TOAST.net Mobile Hotspot and the details of their data plans.
Like many other prepaid providers, TOAST is reselling Sprint 3G broadband. This means you'll be using the exact same 3G network as Sprint and Virgin Mobile (a Sprint subsidiary) subscribers use. Without even looking at the TOAST device, I can generally expect this of Sprint 3G service: Excellent 3G coverage in urban and most suburban areas but spotty coverage in the more fringe rural and suburban areas. Sprint 3G download speed is generally slightly below industry average and typically clocks in at between 0.75 and 2.5 Mbps download speeds.
TOAST.net chose to use the Novatel MiFi 2200 mobile hotspot as their flagship mobile hotspot device. While the MiFi 2200 3G mobile hotspot model is a couple of years old and not as sleek or sexy as some of the new 4G hotspots, it is still an real workhorse for the job it is supposed to do: Enable wireless Internet access for up to five Wi-Fi enabled devices anywhere in the country where a compatible 3G signal is available.
The Mobile Hotspot I ordered for this review was purchased though the TOAST.net website at full price without revealing the fact that it was for review or evaluation. I was paid $75 for the hotspot, plus an extra $20 to cover the shipping and activation fee. I opted for the $15.00 per month for 500 MB plan and was billed $6.20 that covered the pre-payment for the prorated balance of the billing period. All together the tab came to $100.27. I placed the online order over their website on a Monday morning, and called their local support number at 419-292-2200 about an after my web order to ask about the delivery method. I was happy to hear the order was already being prepped for shipping that afternoon from their Ohio warehouse.
I received my TOAST.net mobile hotspot on Wednesday (I am in New York). The hotspot came in a Novatel branded package and was pre-configured and battery fully charged. After inserting the battery and snapping on the pack cover, I was able to get online in under 30 seconds of powering up the MiFi. I used my iPad2 to establish the first of five available connections using the default password supplied with found on sticker affixed to the rear cover.
The first test I performed was using the LAPTOP mobile battery test. To ensure the TOAST MiFi was 100% charged, I hooked up the USB charger for about an hour. The LAPTOP battery test was done with using my HP EliteBook 8440p laptop connected using WiFi-G. Three battery tests, spaced about 1 hour apart, yielded an average battery life of 3 hours, 49 minutes. This was pretty much what I expected based on my prior tests of the MiFi 2200 from various other carriers over the last 3 years.
Upload and download performance was gauged using the Speedtest.net online version of their broadband test, using both my HP Laptop as well as a Samsung Galaxy Nexus as clients. I measured the download, upload and latency (ping) as 5 different locations in and around the Long Island/New York/New Jersey area. Download speeds ranged from 0.44 Mbps to 2.10 Mbps with an average download speed of 1.33 Mbps and an average upload speed of 0.85 Mbps. Average latency came in at a very respectable 95ms.
The TOAST.net MiFi 2200 3G mobile hotspot is a Novatel branded device that runs on the nationwide Sprint 3G network.
The TOAST MiFi comes pre-configured. Just insert the battery and power it on. USB cable and charger is also included.
My TOAST.net MiFi 2200 mobile hotspot took about 30 seconds to establish a 3G connection to the Sprint network.
Small enough to carry in your purse of pocket - about the size of a stack of 8 credit cards.
The TOAST.net help desk phone number and default password are found on the rear of the device.
TOAST.net Prepaid Mobile Data Plans
For users who need "modest' amounts of data per month, TOAST.net offers some of the lowest rates for prepaid mobile broadband data plans in the country. Their lowest priced mobile hotspot data plans they sell costs $15 per month for 500 Megabytes or $25 per month for 1 GB. TOAST.net’s data access prices becomes much more inline (more expensive) with other prepaid providers when the data limits get into the 3 to 6 GB per month range. From their data pricing schedule, I can clearly see that TOAST is targeting the users who use less than 2 GB's a month. These types of data consumers are often characterized by:
- Majority of time online with activities like Facebook updates, Twitter, Email, light web browsing
- Less than 15 minutes per day of video and music streaming like Pandora, Spotify, and Netflix
- Up to two smaller-sized MP3 songs or apps downloaded per day
- Up to a total of 90 minutes per day spent online in total on an average day.
Cost of TOAST.net Data Plans
The "Sweet Spot" of TOAST's wireless data plans are clearly the $15 and $25 per month options. This is where TOAST.net has some strong price differentiation to it's competitors who offer prepaid plans.
|Cost per Month||
* Data used over and above the subscribed monthly limit is billed at $.04 (4 cents) per megabyte.
How to get started with TOAST mobile broadband
Before you order, make sure that Sprint 3G is available in the areas that you expect to use your TOAST mobile hotspot. (Check http://coverage.sprint.com for updated coverage map) .Click here to order a TOAST mobile hotspot device and choose your data plan. You’ll receive your TOAST.net hotspot in a few days. Everything’s configured, just turn it on, enter the WiFi password and you’re good to go. You can check your TOAST.net data usage by logging in to their secure Members area. If you need to upgrade or downgrade your access plan, simply call them at 888-862-7863 and the good folks there will help you the entire way.
TOAST plans include a feature that will send you a text message or email alert when a certain percentage of data is consumed, typically 75%. Another nice feature in the alert utility is that it examines the average daily rate at which you're eating up wireless data. For example, if you're using an average of 100 megabytes per day for the first 10 days of the billing cycle, you'll be alerted to the fact that your estimated data used by the end of the month would be roughly 100 MB x 30 Days = 3000 MB (3 GB). Gaining insight into your actual usage patterns is the best way to figure out the lowest cost plan that will stay within your needs.
TOAST.net offers a 30 day "no-worry" money back guarantee. If a TOAST customer is unhappy for any reason, they will be able to receive a full refund for the cost of equipment. Shipping fee's and portions of data plans that have already been consumed may be refundable by at discretion of TOAST.net
To test the claim, I contacted TOAST.net customer support by phone and explained that the TOAST MiFi product and service was "not meeting my needs at this time" . TOAST.net was extremely helpful in trying to solve whatever problem I had that was prompting me to cancel service (I actually did NOT have any problems). It is not the policy of MobileHotspot.com to request a refund for products we evaluate , so I just needed to cancel the service since the evaluation and review was done. After some verbal back and forth, I was able to cancel the service (like all wireless providers, they seemed determined to find a way to keep you as a subscriber). I explained to the agent at TOAST that I needed to cancel service, but was hoping to resume in the future, so I would not need a refund on the equipment. I confirmed my account was indeed canceled when logging into the client control panel at the TOAST.net site. It was clear that I would have been able to return the MiFi device for a refund of $75 had I actually wanted to do so. Overall, TOAST.net had one of the most fair and hassle-free return policies I have seen in the past year or two.
Conclusion and Final Thoughts
The TOAST.net mobile hotspot and prepaid data plan could not have come at a better time. With money getting tighter and tighter for millions of families, cutting non-essentials are on the top of their list. Years ago, it may have been easy to justify getting rid of wireless internet access to cut costs, but nowadays wireless data access is practically nearly as important as electricity to modern family and business life.
From my experience, TOAST.net is probably making little or no profit on the MiFi device they sell (and perhaps losing a bit of money), so the only possible way they can stay in the wireless business is by the quality, price and reliability of their prepaid data plans. The competition in the prepaid wireless market is beyond fierce. Since TOAST can't control the quality of the network (that's Sprints job), they live-or-die by the pricing and service of their prepaid wireless data packages. Unlike contract providers like AT&T, prepaid providers can't afford the luxury of "taking the customer for granted" - this can only mean better prices and service in the end.
TOAST.net’s low priced mobile hotspot device and inexpensive data plans will definitely appeal to anyone looking to save a nice chunk of change each month.
Users who consume above-average amounts of data, over 3GB per month will probably not see much of a cost savings from TOAST.net. But nonetheless, it’s a nice feeling be able to support a fully American, locally operated business that's "fightin' the good fight" in their David and Goliath battle with some of the biggest wireless corporations on the planet.
Summary of Advantages:
- Great value for user needing 1GB or less per month
- Inexpensive hardware: less than $100 to get started
- Uses the MiFi 2200, the most popular mobile hotspot
- Dedicated and local support and service based in Ohio, USA
- Excellent 3G coverage over Sprint's nationwide network
- No contract, hidden fees,or early termination clauses
- Intelligent data usage estimator and subscriber alert
Summary of Disadvantages:
- Data plans are relatively expensive for users needing 3GB or more per month
- Below average download speeds for a 3G network
- Data overage rate of 4 cents per megabyte can get expensive if not monitored