I have had my AT&T 3G USB connection “card” (it’s really not a card, but I’m not sure what else to call it) for about a year now, and overall I have been VERY pleased with it. I first experienced the joy of cell phone broadband connectivity in Hawaii in December 2007 with a borrowed Verizon card. At that time, unfortunately, the 3G network in the Honolulu area was not completed so the data transmission speeds were not fast enough to support an iChat videoconference or a Skype videoconference. I had not yet discovered Ustream at that point, but even if I’d known about it I don’t think the local Hawaiian cell phone data network at the time would have been fast enough to support a live broadcast.

Last year at the OTA conference in Oklahoma City on February 5, 2008, I wrote the post “The dream is alive: Online at OTA via AT&T Wireless” after borrowing Lance Ford‘s AT&T USB data card. (We didn’t have any WiFi connectivity at our state educational technology conference, so it was “BYOB” or nothing in terms of wireless connectivity.) I’ve sung the praises of this connectivity option in other posts as well, including “BYOB – Bring Your Own Bandwidth” and “Sierra Wireless saved my life tonight.”

Sierra Wireless USBConnect 881 Broadband Card

This AT&T service costs our family $60 U.S. per month, which is REALLY expensive, but given the importance of being connected at educational technology conferences as a presenter it is worth the money to me at this point. I still have more than a year remaining on my contract, so I’m not about to change carriers, but for interests-sake today I priced Sprint’s offerings for broadband USB cards and service.

The cheapest model available in the Sprint store I visited was the “Sierra Wireless 598U” broadband card. It has a $150 instant rebate and a $50 mail-in rebate, so effectively (assuming your rebate comes in) it is free, but it costs $50 to walk out of the store with it now:

Sierra Wireless 598U Broadband card

The second option was this “Ovation U760” broadband card, which AFTER rebates is $80. You have to pay $50 to get the mail-in rebate, however, so it costs $130 to walk out of the store with it. It has a small antenna which flips up, but the salesman didn’t know if that antenna resulted in any noticeable improvement in connectivity or reception.

Ovation U760 Broadband Card

As with my AT&T 3G data card, however, the price of the card itself is just a fraction of the story in financial terms. If you sign a two year contract on the card (which actually is treated as a new, separate “phone”) you will pay Sprint $60 per month for the service. If you just sign a one year contract, it costs $80 per month. Ouch!

The connectivity speeds downstream and upstream with the Sprint card sound very comparable to AT&T. The download speeds vary between 600 Kbps and 1.4 MB, while the upstream chugs along at 300 to 500 Kbps. With either plan, customers are limited to a total of 5 GB of traffic on the card per month. This is the same as AT&T now as well. This limit has been imposed, I surmise, to prevent people from either doing a lot of file sharing over the connection or from sharing the connection with a large number of friends, family members or neighbors. (It is possible to share the connection over WiFi with others on a Mac, incidentally, and I’d guess you can do this with WinXP or Vista as well, tho I have not tried.)

I really wish we’d see more competition push down the price of this monthly charge for wireless broadband connectivity. My conclusion today is that I’d basically be paying the same amount per month if I was going with Sprint rather than AT&T for my service. Since I have and love my iPhone, of course I’m using AT&T, and won’t likely change for the foreseeable future. If, however, I was able to get a broadband card and monthly service for considerably less than what I’m paying now, I’d consider using that card and service instead for my laptop connectivity. I did learn at an AT&T store recently that if I decide at some point I don’t want to continue my broadband card service, I can simply put the SIM card into another phone and let AT&T know I want to just use that number as a $10 “add-a-line” on my family plan. That would save us $50 per month. If AT&T actually offered a $10 per month tethering option for the iPhone as has been rumored, I’d definitely go with that option in lieu of my USB broadband card. Even for $30 per month that might look attractive compared to the $60 I’m paying now.

At this point, I’m sticking with my AT&T USB broadband cell phone network service plan. The utility of being able to “BYOB” is too high to do without it at this point. 🙂

Have you had good or bad experiences with cell phone data cards like these? If you are a Verizon customer, how much are you paying per month for high speed cell phone network / wireless data access?

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3 Responses to Comparing Broadband USB Options for Laptops

  1. Daniel Moix says:


    I’m an AT&T voice user, but for my mobile data I use a Cricket Broadband card. It’s $35/month if you have an existing cricket line or $40 without. It’s unlimited(*) anywhere Cricket has native service. I shut off my DSL and landline at home and have been saving money bringing my bandwidth with me.

    Cricket’s coverage area is microscopic and in no way nationwide. It works at home, it works at school, and I’ve been able to get coverage every time I’ve traveled with it.

    “Unlimited” means that there is no monthly data cap. You can download as much as you like. The catch is data rate. You get 5GB of data a full speed, and after that, the fine print says they *may* throttle you back. I’ve never been throttled, so I can’t tell you what that experience is like.

    Overall, I’m pleased with the device. It’s EVDO. I get about 1Mbit/s in real conditions. The latency isn’t so bad once you get used to it. 🙂 and it’s an order of magnitude faster than AT&T EDGE coverage.

  2. Wesley Fryer says:

    Daniel: I’m glad to hear about your Cricket broadband experiences. I have been very interested in that since Cricket came to the OKC metro area. Since I’m traveling and needing access in lots of places I don’t think it will work for me, but it sounds like you’ve got the connectivity most of the places you need it at this point, and that is GREAT. When we were in Lubbock, Texas, a few weeks ago I noticed they had several other wireless Internet options that we don’t have here. It’s good to see Cricket making inroads in the market, hopefully they’ll continue to grow.

  3. Kelly Wilson says:

    Do you know of a way to connect in areas where cell phone coverage is not available? I would like to take my laptop to update parent Moodle pages when we travel internationally to remote locations.

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