The Best 4G Mobile Broadband
- April 9, 2018 - For this update, we tackled all six major 4G providers, as opposed to just Verizon and AT&T. In addition to new reviews of each provider, we've also updated our buying guide with more concise information for how to choose your provider.
- January 23, 2018 - The 4G mobile broadband landscape has changed since we originally published this review in 2015. We’ve updated this page to reflect Verizon and AT&T’s most recent features, and will conduct a complete overhaul later this year to revamp our methodology.
The Best 4G Mobile Broadband
In 2018, most Americans need access to the internet throughout the day, even when they’re on the go and there’s no reliable Wi-Fi connection. That’s where mobile broadband comes in: It allows you to connect to the internet anytime, anywhere.
The best 4G mobile broadband offers the speeds and data allowances that fit your mobile internet habits, whether that’s checking emails during lunch, surfing the internet while on the bus, or streaming YouTube videos at the beach. It also has widespread, reliable coverage and the equipment to cater to your specific needs.
To help you navigate your options, we dug into the plans and policies of the six biggest US mobile broadband carriers. Whether you have a family full of high-speed video streamers or you’re just looking for a solo plan with the means to send and receive emails, there’s a plan below that will suit your needs.
How to Choose the Best 4G Mobile Broadband for You
What exactly is 4G mobile broadband?
Between acronyms like 3G, 4G, and LTE, navigating mobile broadband terms can get confusing fast. Here’s what you need to know: “Mobile broadband” is a marketing term for wireless high-speed internet, which allows you to access tower signal networks through a compatible device like a portable modem, tablet, or smartphone. It’s separate from the Wi-Fi provided by your internet service provider: your mobile broadband service won’t be affected by your Wi-Fi, and vice-versa.
If, like many Americans, you’re often using the Internet heavily while on the go — streaming podcasts while commuting to work, Googling directions on the way to a new restaurant, or sharing favorite videos and photos with friends — reliable, fairly-priced mobile broadband service is important to help keep your daily life chugging along smoothly. To find the best 4G mobile internet, we pulled the six most popular US carriers and compared plans, pricing, and features. To find your best, start by plugging your info into our zip tool at the top of the page to see what carriers are available in your area, then use the reviews below to see which carrier caters to your specific needs.
For more comprehensive definitions and explanations of terms like 4G, 5G, and LTE, check out our guide further below.
The 6 4G Mobile Broadband Providers We Compared
- Cricket Wireless
Calculate how much bandwidth you’ll need.
Before you start narrowing down plans, it’s important to figure out how much mobile data you actually expect to use before choosing a plan; that way, you’re not paying for surplus bandwidth that ends up going to waste.
In general, you can get a good sense from considering your daily mobile internet activities: Do you like data-heavy activities like streaming videos and music, uploading photos, playing games online, or making video calls? Are you the only one on the plan, or will it be a family full of heavy data users? The more users, and the more data-heavy activities you expect, the higher monthly data allowances you’ll need.
If you stream hours of music and videos every day, you’ll want at least a 5 GB per month plan. If you mainly use your data to surf the web, send email, and upload photos, you can probably make do with a 2 GB plan. Still not sure where you fall? Verizon’s Data Calculator is a great place to figure out how your data usage habits shake out.
Our estimates are based on the assumption that your plan is capable of providing speeds between 8-12 Mbps, which is standard for most mobile broadband plans and plenty fast enough for streaming music or videos. The main exceptions are the free monthly plans from FreedomPop and NetZero, which offer 500 MB of data and 1 Mbps speeds. While something-for-nothing is a good deal, keep in mind that these minimal plans are best for people who have very basic data usage habits — think emails, moderate web surfing, and very occasional music streaming, not for making video calls or uploading large photo folders.
Even generous data plans have their limitations: Every large mobile broadband carrier specifies in their fine print that speeds will slow down when you hit your monthly data cap and/or when traffic is especially high. For most unlimited data plans, there’s a limit of about 22 GB for consistently high-speed data, after which you may be subjected to laggy video and eternal buffering swirls.
If you know for a fact that you haven’t exceeded your monthly data limit, then it might be a location-based issue: Some areas only have 3G coverage, which means your connection will be slow until you get back to a 4G zone. If losing speed is a consistent problem, you can monitor your monthly data usage to see what’s eating up your data and why.
Beyond data limits, you’ll also want to consider speed, equipment, special features, and price when choosing your plan, all of which we cover below. None of these factors are necessarily hardline dealbreakers — it’s up to your personal preference and individual data usage habits.
Figure out what equipment you need.
When it comes to equipment, offerings are fairly standard across providers. But figuring out what equipment you want and why can get confusing. To help make things clearer, we’ve outlined the basics below.
After identifying out your data requirements, you have a few options for how exactly you’ll be able to use that data on the go. And because equipment can end up being a substantial chunk of the total cost of your plan, it’s important to know what you’re looking for, and what new equipment (if any) you’ll want to purchase.
- Smartphones and tablets: Smartphones and tablets are usually the default devices for mobile broadband, and they’re great options if you don’t require on-the-go internet for, say, a laptop. Most smartphones and tablets have built-in 4G capabilities, but you’ll want to make sure that your device of choice is compatible with your preferred carrier. You can do this by either purchasing a smartphone or tablet directly from the carrier or checking the carrier’s FAQ or online store to see if your device will work with their service. Prices can range from as low as $100 to as high as $1,000, depending on what kind of smartphone or tablet you prefer — generally, cheaper carriers will carry cheaper phone models, though most new iPhone and Android models will be universally compatible with major carriers.
- USB modem: Sometimes known as a laptop stick, a USB modem can be plugged into any laptop for easy access to your mobile data service. They can be a good choice for anyone who’s planning on using their mobile broadband service primarily as supplemental Wi-Fi. Most USB modems cost less than $100, though you’ll only be able to use it with one laptop at a time.
- Hotspot: A “hotspot” is a blanket term for any separate portable device that allows you to connect multiple devices to the same mobile data service. If you primarily use mobile data through your phone, most carriers will charge higher prices for hotspot capabilities, generally ranging from $10 to $25 on top of your regular monthly bill. If you only want data for your hotspot, several carriers also offer “data-only” plans that only require you to pay for a set amount of hotspot data each month, separate from any smartphone mobile data plans. If you’d like to purchase a designated hotspot device, prices generally range from $50 to $150+ each depending on their speed and bandwidth capabilities, though most average under $100. Because they’re easily portable and can connect a family full of devices, they’re a great option for mobile data access while traveling.
What about tethering?Tethering connects your smartphone to your laptop, which allows your laptop to share your phone’s mobile broadband. But there are some tradeoffs: Most carriers only allow tethering with higher-priced plans, and tethered connections can be slow and drain your phone. If you plan on sharing mobile data service with your laptop frequently or want to share data service with multiple laptops, it’s better to get a modem or hotspot.
Once you’ve identified the data plan and equipment you need, choosing a plan comes down to price and additional features that fit your lifestyle, whether you’re a solo shopper or searching for a family plan. Our picks offer a variety of options, add-ons, and discounts; the trick is matching your personal situation to the carrier that fits it best.
Our Picks for the Best 4G Mobile Broadband
With coverage over all 50 states and Puerto Rico, plus service in Canada and Mexico through the Unlimited Beyond plan, Verizon is one of the most widely available mobile broadband carriers in the US. It’s also one of the fastest, with advertised speeds of 12 Mbps for every plan. While you won’t find significant speed variations across the three leading providers (Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile), Verizon also ranks as having some of the most reliable speeds.
That said, Verizon plans don’t come cheap: Prices start at $35 per month for 2 GB and can hit upwards of $70 per month for unlimited plans. But, as of 2018, you can score a pretty decent discount if you’re planning on getting an unlimited plan for four to 10 people, which is currently being advertised for $40 to $50 per person: much cheaper than the $70 to $85 per person charge for a solo unlimited plan. There are also smaller discounts for two- to three-person unlimited plans. It’s still not as affordable as, say, a family plan with Cricket Wireless, but you’ll have wider coverage and better speeds.
It’s also important to note that Verizon’s Unlimited plans may begin to experience speed lags after 22 GB, the same data cap as AT&T. That’s not a problem for most people — you’d have to stream over 16 hours of video to use up that much data — but if you’re a truly fierce mobile data user, we’d recommend considering T-Mobile, which has a more generous high-speed data cap for unlimited users at 50 GB.
A giant of the telecommunications space, AT&T stands out for its wide range of price tiers and unique sign-up perks. Like Verizon, its plans tend to be on the pricier side as far as mobile broadband carriers go. However, AT&T has more price tiers, ranging from $25 for 1 GB to $90 for Unlimited Plus.
In addition, a few of AT&T’s plans are straight-up more data for your money in comparison to Verizon: take, for example, AT&T’s 5 GB for $50 plan versus Verizon’s 4 GB for $50 plan, or AT&T's 10 GB for $75 plan versus Verizon's 8 GB for $70 plan. That means there’s more flexibility and potentially better value for the discerning mobile broadband buyer. AT&T has coverage in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, and, like Verizon, offers optional coverage in Canada and Mexico for an additional fee through its Unlimited plans.
For the family shopper on the hunt for generous group discounts, we’d recommend looking at Verizon or Sprint instead: AT&T’s tiny bottom-of-page details about group discounts were hard to parse, and doing so revealed that additional lines (up to 10 lines total per plan) are only eligible for a $5 to $10 discount each, even combining an assortment of discounts from Auto-Pay and Paperless Billing.
But AT&T does stand out for some pretty unique sign-up perks: New users can land $15 off their monthly DIRECTV Now bill, as well as a free HBO subscription (also a $15 per month value). For solo users or families who love TV, that can be well worth the value of an already moderately-priced mobile broadband plan.
And, true to its history as an industry leader, AT&T is one of the first to look forward into the future of mobile broadband, advertising its “5G Evolution” network in select cities as of 2017-2018. It should be noted that these networks aren’t truly 5G yet, and won’t be available nationwide for a few years to come — but AT&T’s forward-thinking vision solidifies them as a solid provider, no matter which plan you choose.
T-Mobile hasn’t been a heavy hitter quite as long as Verizon and AT&T, but it’s been making truly impressive strides. Most notably, its Unlimited plans have an extremely generous high-speed data cap of 50 GB, more than twice that offered by AT&T and Verizon. That means if you have a family of fierce data users — regularly placing mobile video calls, online gaming, and uploading photos in marathon sessions — T-Mobile is your best bet if you want to avoid lagging speeds in all conditions. In addition, T-Mobile also offers a free Netflix subscription with some plans: a perfect fit if you plan on using your Unlimited data to stream shows on the go.
Another special feature of T-Mobile is its prepaid data “pass.” Like most major carriers, T-Mobile offers data-only mobile broadband plans, which are generally more affordable, alongside phone data plans. But if you don’t want to commit to a plan, or if you know you’ll only temporarily need extra data, you can buy a prepaid data pass. This is convenient for travelers, who can pay a single flat rate beforehand and then have access to mobile data service until the end of the allotted time period or when the data limit is reached. Passes are priced from $5 for one day of data capped at 500 MB, $10 for seven days of data capped at 1 GB, and $30 for 30 days of data capped at 3 GB.
T-Mobile’s main con is coverage: As of 2018, it’s only available in 46 states, and it has better service in cities. The company is currently working on expanding and improving its reach in rural areas, but if you know you’ll often be outside of urban areas, it may be a better idea to consider AT&T or Verizon.
Sprint’s major draw is its affordable family plan discounts. Through March 2019 you can add five Unlimited lines for only $100 per month, which is practically a steal in comparison to the prices of other major carriers — T-Mobile prices four Unlimited lines at $140, AT&T prices four lines at $160 to $190 per month, and Verizon prices five lines at $200 to $250 per month. Those fantastic discounts don’t apply to individual plans, but as long as your family falls within Sprint’s range of coverage, you’re unlikely to find a better-priced group plan for unlimited data. As an additional plus, Unlimited plans come with a free Hulu subscription, with a 23 GB high-speed data cap — slightly higher than AT&T and Verizon’s, though well behind T-Mobile’s 50 GB.
That’s not to say that individual plans aren’t affordable with Sprint; of the major carriers, Sprint offer some of the best deals, with unlimited data-only plans starting at $30. What’s more, all of Sprint’s data-only plans include automatic data rollover, so you can get great value for your money if you plan your data usage ahead of time.
However, Sprint’s coverage isn’t quite as wide as that of AT&T and Verizon. While it’s available in 51 states and territories, it’s mainly available in cities. However, it’s working on expanding: The company recently acquired CLEAR, another 4G mobile broadband internet provider. The acquisition suggests that Sprint’s coverage will extend into less urban areas in the future.
Cricket Wireless is known for its pre-paid phone service, but it also offers affordably-priced yet high-speed mobile broadband plans. Its plans range from $20 to $60, and it offers affordable unlimited plans priced at only $45 to $60 per month for a standard 22 GB data cap. And if you’re shopping for a family, you can save even more money: Cricket offers generous group discounts for their 5 GB and Unlimited plans. You’ll get $10 off for the second user added and $20 off for each additional user for up to five users total.
Cricket also extends exceptionally steep group discounts on occasion: As of April 2018, you can sign up for the Cricket Unlimited 2 plan for only $100 per month for four lines, or $80 per month for two lines. That’s not as generous as Sprint’s 2018-2019 five-line Unlimited discount, but if you’re looking for a large family budget plan that consistently offers low prices, or you don’t qualify for Sprint’s new customer discount, then Cricket may be the better choice for you.
Cricket is also a great option for those who want to experiment with their monthly data usage. If you end up hitting your monthly data cap, you can “top-up” your monthly allowance by purchasing an extra 1 GB for $10. And if you plan on sharing your mobile data service, you can also add an 8 GB hotspot for an extra $10 per month. That makes it easy for families to be flexible about how much data they use and how they use it.
The catch? Cricket’s speeds and coverage aren’t quite as good as those of Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Max advertised speeds reach up to 8 Mbps (compared to the 12 Mbps advertised by the more expensive carriers). Cricket also only has coverage in 37 states, and even that coverage is patchy in the West. Overall, its coverage is best in cities and the Eastern United States. All the same, if you’re looking for affordable unlimited plans and Cricket is available in your area, it’s a decent deal.
FreedomPop is best known for its free monthly data plan. No, that wasn’t a typo — if you have a compatible device (which you can check on FreedomPop’s store page), you can literally get 500 MB of mobile broadband for $0 per month. FreedomPop’s only direct competitor in the free mobile broadband market is NetZero; however, since NetZero requires you to buy an $80 hotspot and only offers the free monthly plan for a 12-month contract, we preferred FreedomPop.
Granted, even though you get something for nothing with FreedomPop, it’s not much data, and it’s not very fast. With 500 MB at speeds of 1 Mbps, you’ll be able to send a few hundred emails, upload a few dozen photos to social media, and surf the web for a few hours. It’s not fast enough to stream much music or video, but if your data needs are basic, it doesn’t get better than free.
That’s not to say FreedomPop has nothing to offer if your data needs exceed 500 MB per month. It also offers affordably-priced plans with higher data caps, ranging from 1 GB to 4 GB for $20 to $35 per month. Speeds are slower at 5 Mbps, and coverage isn’t amazing — it’s mainly concentrated in the East Coast, Eastern Midwest, and South — but it’s still more widely available than NetZero, and it offers an array of unique add-ons that can help boost your monthly data usage with minimal additional fees.
We do a deep dive into these features in our FreedomPop review, but our favorites combine benefits offered by our other top picks. You can enjoy free data sharing with friends and earn data through referrals. For an extra $4 to $7 per month, you can also enable data rollover or speed boost. Additionally, you can choose to top-up your data anytime with an additional 750 MB to 1 GB for an extra $15. Of course, these costs can all add up if you’re not careful about your data usage — but for the solo user who has the discipline to track their mobile broadband time in a smart way, FreedomPop can save you a good chunk of money.
A Guide to Mobile Broadband Terms
3G vs. 4G
“G” stands for “generation” of mobile data technology, as defined by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU-R) — they’re the ones who decide how fast mobile connections need to be before being designated “3G” or “4G.” Generations have progressed successively about every 10 years, but as technology improves, that generational window may shrink. Simply put, the higher the number, the faster and stronger you can expect your mobile data connection to be.
“LTE”, “HSPA+,” and similar acronyms that often appear alongside “4G” in mobile data advertisements are proprietary technologies companies use for their 4G data networks. Phrases like “4G LTE” are marketing terms that essentially mean “this isn’t fast enough to be truly 4G, but we’re very close.” This is more realistic than deceptive, since the ITU-R sets high technological standards for each successive generation as a goal for developers.
Once manufacturers have fully achieved 4G speeds on a widespread scale, the industry as a whole will move its target to 5G. 4G networks and capabilities continue to grow, but 5G technology has been developing throughout this time as well. A few large carriers, such as AT&T, are rolling out 5G networks in select cities to test out their functions. That doesn’t mean that researching and signing up for 4G plans is a waste of time: As with all past generations, initial networks and service will be limited as developers work to improve the technology. And while you can expect to hear more about 5G technology in 2019 and beyond, it’s likely going to be from the same major players in the telecommunications industry.
Our 4G Mobile Broadband Review: Summed Up
More 4G Mobile Broadband Reviews
We’ve been researching 4G Mobile Broadband companies for a while now, and we’ve published more detailed reviews on the providers we cover here. Check them out below: