Goodbye, AT&T 3G! After a year of hoping coverage would improve, I finally jumped ship from AT&T’s 3G network and moved my mobile wireless broadband service to Sprint. I grabbed a refurbished USB EV-DO device and signed up through a no-contract reseller and couldn’t be happier with the service so far. And I picked up a Cradlepoint router at the same time, giving me a portable Wi-Fi hotspot so any device I have (or a friend has) can get online at broadband speed from anywhere. Awesome!
So, yeah, my headline is a little misleading. But it’s true – rather than buy a 3G iPhone in my 3G-starved hometown, I decided to kill all of my mobile connectivity woes at once, including stepping up to 3G speeds on the iPhone. Read on for details about what was wrong with AT&T Laptop Connect, why I selected Sprint, the Cradlepoint PHS300 router, and how to get all of this with no contract.
AT&T Laptop (Dis)Connect
My mobile phone service has been in the AT&T network since before there was such a thing – my first “cell phone” was on Houston Cellular, which blobbed into Cingular and became AT&T. So when my employer purchased me a Dell laptop with an integrated HSDPA (AT&T 3G) WWAN solution, I was happy to sign up for AT&T Wireless’ Laptop Connect service. I must note that from the start I have been peeved that AT&T gives no benefit whatsoever to having both 3G data and mobile phone service on the same account.
At the time, I lived in Metro West Massachusetts, where 3G service was quickly spreading, and most of my travel happened to be within AT&T’s narrow map. This was certainly a good thing, because EDGE speed is almost unbearable for business productivity! I was surprised to note that the built-in 3G hardware and antenna was often actually worse than my mobile phone in terms of coverage, often losing 3G or dropping service altogether as I moved inside a building.
Then there were the inexplicable service failures – I would open up the laptop in an airport or hotel and it would refuse to connect entirely. A quick call to AT&T’s 611 service center would prod them to “send a signal” or something and all would be fine for a few days.
And as I traveled around the United States, AT&T’s poor 3G coverage became painfully obvious – I even had to pay the exorbitant rates charged for hotel Wi-Fi on a number of occasions, the very thing I was trying to avoid! I finally got fed up on a recent trip to San Jose when neither AT&T 3G nor any pay-for-Wi-Fi service was available in the heart of Silicon Valley. AT&T could offer no help besides suggesting that I buy a new 3G modem (and sign up for 2 more years of service!) so their fate was sealed.
Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T
My research showed that Verizon and Sprint are way ahead of AT&T in terms of high-speed network coverage in the United States. I asked around and found lots of happy customers for both providers in all the areas I travel to, including positive comments about performance and network reach. Most comparisons have shown Sprint’s network to have something of a performance advantage, however, and their coverage is superior in Ohio, where I now reside.
All three wireless broadband have nearly identical service plans: One- to three-megabit speed for $60 (plus taxes and fees) per month. And all will give free USB, PCMCIA, or ExpressCard hardware for signing a 2-year contract. All have similar service initiation fees, which storefront resellers offered to eat for my business, signaling just how profitable these contracts must be!
Sprint almost lost me, though, because although Verizon and AT&T will prorate their early-termination fees, Sprint will not. But all three were willing (after some prodding) to give no-contract service if I bought the hardware outright, a decided change from AT&T’s stance when I signed up last year. Verizon and Sprint now also limit their plans to 5 gigabytes per month, which is more than I use.
Millenicom and 3GStore
Then I discovered Millenicom. A reseller of various broadband services, Millenicom sells access to Sprint’s EV-DO network for those who own their own hardware and is very popular with enthusiasts. Even though they raised their rates from $49 to $59 per month recently, they include all fees and taxes, a savings of $8.23 per month over the providers themselves. Service is pre-paid in full monthly increments and there is no cap on network access. So all I needed was a Sprint EV-DO device.
Enter 3GStore.com, a respected purveyor of all things EV-DO. They happened to have refurbished Novatel Wireless Ovation U720 Sprint USB EV-DO devices on special this month, and also happen to be a popular source for Cradlepoint routers. I whipped out the credit card, and in two days flat the FedEx truck delivered my new hardware. Even though it was Saturday, I decided to try to set up the device on Millenicom’s web site, and just a short time later found it activated and working. Two big thumbs up for Millenicom and 3GStore!
Cradlepoint’s Personal Hotspot
Although the U720 device works great on both PC and Mac, I fell for the idea of the Cradlepoint “personal hotspot” router. It is a little device (almost exactly the same size as my Maxtor OneTouch Mini portable hard drive) with a USB port for connecting to 3G modems like the U720. It functions like the NAT routers that are widely used to share home broadband connections with Wi-Fi devices, including my Tomato/Buffalo router and Apple’s AirPort line.
Cradlepoint makes a few of these devices, but I decided on the PHS300 model which includes a rechargeable battery pack for real mobile use. Fire it up in an airport, a hotel, or a conference room and have instant connectivity for any configured devices without even worrying about finding a power outlet! We’ll see what the future holds, but I’m psyched about the idea of firing up the router in my laptop bag for quick internet access for laptop and iPhone wherever I happen to be.