USB Mobile Broadband Adapters
Mobile data access using dongles and other plug-in hardware goes back about a decade. Novatel Wireless, for example, introduced PC card mobile adapters around 2000, according to John Ross, VP of product management for the company.
You can find USB modems from major (and minor) manufacturers. For example, Verizon Wireless currently offers two 4G USB modems, one costing $20 and the other $100 (along with a two-year contract); a data plan costs $50/month for 5GB and $80/month for 10GB. AT&T offers a single $30 device at $50/month for 5G. Sprint offers two modems, each free with a two-year contract, with data plans that offer $50/month for 6GB or $80/month for 12GB. And T-Mobile also offers two free USB modems for $40/month for 2GB, $50 for 5GB and $80 for 10GB (after you reach the maximum, T-Mobile will reduce speeds).
Many of these are using hardware from the same manufacturer. Pricing and service availability in the locations you'll be in are more important when choosing a service provider. If you're satisfied with your current carrier, that's probably the one to start with. (Or you may decide it's time to try a new carrier.)
- Transferability: The service associates with the USB adapter, so you can easily move it from device to device. (Or if you're doing IT provisioning, you can have several broadband dongles available to lend out, instead of paying for the built-in mobile broadband option when buying notebooks, as well as separate data plans for users.)
- You don't have to make potential-carrier decisions as part of doing a notebook purchase. The growing use of Qualcomm Gobi multi-mode chipsets in broadband radio circuitry has led to some flexibility for embedded broadband in laptops, but a given user may still need something that Gobi doesn't support.
- Using a USB dongle instead of tethering your smartphone means you're not putting any additional strain on your phone's battery.
- It is less expensive than a hotspot.
- You have to remember to bring it.
- It requires subscribing to a data plan separate from your smartphone's data plan.
- It can connect only one device at a time.
- If you're using a broadband dongle with a laptop, it may be difficult to position it for optimum reception (packing a short USB cable can help with this).
- Like anything poking out of a notebook port, it's vulnerable to being leaned on or banged.
A mobile hotspot combines a cellular broadband adapter and a Wi-Fi router in a single remarkably compact package -- slightly smaller than a deck of cards (not counting the AC adapter). As the name suggests, a mobile hotspot creates an 802.11 wireless zone that can be shared by a number of Wi-Fi-enabled devices -- typically, up to four or five.
The reach of the hotspot will vary from device to device. For example, according to the manufacturer, the Wi-Fi network created by Novatel's MiFi 4620L (also marketed as the Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE mobile hotspot) "spreads up to 100 feet line of sight (radius, device to device), but is optimal for fast data throughput at 33 feet." Security will similarly vary among devices; the 4620L supports WEP, WPA and WPA2.
The first mobile hotspots began shipping in 2007, according to Jeff Orr of ABI Research, and were designed for the enterprise, offering features including VPNs, local storage and rights-and-permissions management. Newer ones are being aimed at consumers and individual business users, available not just from carriers and online but also in brick-and-mortar chains like Best Buy, Costco, Radio Shack and Target.
Mobile hotspots have yet to hit their sales stride -- according to Orr, only about 2.4 million were sold in the U.S. in 2011, about a sixth of the sales of the USB broadband adapters. But, Orr says, depending on what the carriers offer and promote, 2012 could be the year that mobile hotspots outsell USB adapters.
For carriers, notes Orr, mobile hotspots offer a couple of advantages compared with a user or group of users having multiple individually provisioned devices. First, they reduce the amount of device/network signaling traffic -- the activity that was responsible for a lot of the overload on AT&T's network in 2010 that, says Orr, conclude with an iPhone 4 patch to reduce signaling traffic. And they provide another source of revenue for carrier data products.
Prices for hotspots range from about $125 to slightly under $300, but the price can drop by 50% - 75% depending on the carrier's contract and other available discounts. The data contracts are usually the same as for a USB modem (however, because the data could be shared by more than one user, it's easier to meet or exceed your data limit).