This past week I visited a Best Buy Mobile store in Oklahoma City and checked out their different options for LTE and 4G mobile hotspots. In this post I’ll share what I learned and am thinking regarding iPhone5 contracts, mobile Internet connectivity, and monthly contract / payment options.
As a frequent speaker at conferences and professional development events around the United States, a mobile broadband “hotspot” has become a mandatory lifeline for me over the past several years. Not only can Internet connectivity in schools and even hotels be unpredictable in terms of availability and speed, the content filters in place in schools can significantly hamper a web-based presentation showing different kinds of Internet resources. In urban areas until the past six to twelve months, the fastest cell phone tower / mobile connectivity available has been “3G speed.” Local speeds vary considerably with 3G. Personally I’ve experienced downloads speeds with 3G up to 4 or 5 Mbps (megabits per second) and upload speeds as high as 512 Mbps. This is fast enough to use applications like Ustream Mobile on an iPhone to share a live, synchronous video broadcast online. Often during those broadcasts, however, upstream bandwidth slows down and the quality of the video viewers see (and video recorded online) becomes pixelated as quality drops. The most recent high profile event (at least a ‘bigger deal’ than an orchestra concert including my son) which I mobile broadcasted with my iPhone over 3G was the “Classen’s Got Talent” school wide talent show in December 2011 for Classen SAS in Oklahoma City. After the broadcast I downloaded the encoded flash video, converted it to MPG format (including a custom watermark) with free MPEG Streamclip software, and posted it online to YouTube. We had a maximum of about 25 simultaneous, live viewers during the broadcast, and while this ‘worked’ I definitely wanted to have FASTER cell tower connectivity for my laptop.
You’ve probably heard the major cell phone carriers advertising “LTE” and “4G” cell phone data speeds. The different technologies, acronyms, and platforms considered to be “fourth generation” can be pretty confusing. The English WikiPedia article for 4G provides some helpful background, but a lot of it probably qualifies as TMI (too much information) for many people. Cell phone companies want consumers to hear, “Our network is faster, and faster is better” but generally ignore the terms of multi-year contracts as well as the monthly prices. These can (and do) quickly get VERY high, especially for a family which has multiple smartphones with data plans.
I’ve read with interest recent guest blog posts by Sherman Nicodemus here, especially his January 2012 contribution, “Avoiding AT&T’s Ridiculous iPhone Data Fees by Switching to T-Mobile.” My iPhone4 contract will be up this coming November, and the iPhone5 is expected (on most Mac / Apple blogs / sites I read) to be released in October 2012. After your contract with AT&T is over, I’ve read you can ask them to unlock your phone for free. So I’m very interested in alternative carrier plan options. In last week’s article, “iPhone officially goes prepaid in the US via Cricket,” I learned about the option to purchase a $45 per month pre-paid SIM card from Straight Talk for a locked OR unlocked AT&T iPhone and enjoy unlimited voice, texts and data. (Technically, the same ‘unlimited plan’ as AT&T currently: Throttled access after 2 GB per month.) While I’m keen to avoid a new 2 year contract with AT&T, I’m also VERY interested in enjoying LTE / 4G mobile access speeds. AT&T started throttling “unlimited data plan users” in October 2011, which meant instead of an unwritten 5 GB per month download cap they’re enforcing a 2 GB per month cap for iPhone users. Some months I’ve used almost 5 GB of data on my iPhone, so that’s some background about my current interest in mobile hotspot options.
As the screenshot below shows, Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T offer comparable deals on LTE or 4G compatible mobile hotspots. If you sign a 2 year contract, the device is either $50 or free.
Both Verizon and AT&T offer 5 GB per month in downloads for $50, with additional gigabytes costing $10 per month. Verizon does offer a more generous plan of 10 GB per month for $80, with overage still at the $10 per 10 GB rate.
T-Mobile’s mobile broadband plans are a bit different. They do NOT include “overage charges.” With T-Mobile you can get 5 GB down per month for $40 at 4G/LTE speeds, but after that you don’t pay more… you’re just throttled back to 3G speeds. Current voice customers are offered a further discount of $10 per month, but I don’t know how long that lasts. For just $30 per month, however, it sounds like T-Mobile may be the best deal around especially if you already use T-Mobile.
Several mobile broadband pre-paid options are also available, but not all of these are “mobile hotspots.” I personally don’t think it’s a good idea to buy a USB broadband solution, since it limits you to laptop connectivity. A mobile hotspot, on the other hand, lets you get multiple devices online including tablets (like iPads), iPod Touches, and laptops.
I’m sure when the iPhone5 is announced in October it will be amazing and I’ll want one. The power and utility of my iPhone4 is really stunning, however, and I’m wondering now more than ever… Will I really NEED and use the functions in a newer iPhone at this point? The biggest thing I want when it comes to mobile connectivity is the ability to connect all my devices (iPhone, iPad, and laptop) to the web at LTE / 4G speeds. I understand LTE has a theoretical maximum download speed of 70 or 80 Mbps. Folks I’ve talked to in Oklahoma City say they’ve actually experienced local downloads speeds over LTE/4G of 30 – 40 Mbps and upload speeds of up to 5 Mbps. That is just incredible.
My advice at this point on cell phone contracts is: Check out your options and remain open to other possibilities. AT&T had the exclusive contract for the iPhone for many years and would love for as many past customers as possible to remain ‘locked in’ to their service. Thankfully, however, there are multiple options for iPhone users and it makes sense to check out the possibilities. Of the ones I’ve listed above, the StraightTalk option for iPhone voice/SMS/data and the T-Mobile mobile broadband hotspot are the ones I’m most interested in. We’ll have to see what other choices come in the next five months. If I can reduce our family’s monthly bills for cell phone/data services AND increase our connectivity speeds, that will be a big win for us all. It looks like there may be several ways to do that.
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