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Summary:

Had someone asked me just six months ago about what data plan to buy, my answer would have been very different than it is today. Here’s what you need to know about new and improved networks coming, more prepaid options and tethering plans, before you buy.

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As iPads, smartphones, Android tablets, e-book readers and other connected devices vie for consumer dollars, you’d think it might be the best time to buy a mobile broadband plan, right? I’d argue that it might actually be the worst, or at the very least, a time to be aware of the many new choices available.

Yes, we want the mobile web on every gadget, and we want it to work everywhere we go, but the U.S. mobile broadband market is in the midst of a big change, with faster 3G networks arriving and the end of unlimited data plans. It gets worse in the coming months with competing 4G networks, giving consumers much to think about when choosing a mobile broadband plan. (Related: 4G Plan Update: Who’s Doing What With Mobile Broadband Through 2013)

Indeed, had someone asked me just six months ago about what data plan to buy, my answer would have been very different from what it is today. At that point, all four major carriers had mature 3G networks; there were fewer prepaid options available; and only one 4G network was available. From then to the end of this year, just look at the changes:

Even with a myriad of new choices currently available and coming soon, the same decision points hold true for any mobile broadband purchase. First and foremost, consider the locations you plan to use the service. If a carrier doesn’t offer wireless data coverage where you work or live, you’ll simply be paying for service you can’t use. I made that fatal mistake once before and the error cost me $175 to get out of my contract.

Think too about how often you’ll be using mobile broadband and for what activities. A person who travels once a month for a week at a time may not need to purchase a higher priced monthly plan when a short-term prepaid option could do the trick. Or if you have a 2 GB plan for your smartphone and see you’re only using a small portion of it, a tethering plan might be your best bet. Just bear in mind that using a phone as a MiFi-like device can drain the battery faster, leaving you with no web connection and no phone. Of course, if you’re expecting to do heavy video streaming or use a mobile broadband plan for a full-time Internet connection, seeking out an unlimited service is the way to go.

Now might not be the time for a data plan commitment, either. Often a carrier will subsidize the hardware needed for a data plan, provided you sign up for a two-year contract. With Verizon’s new LTE network soon launching, Sprint’s continued WiMAX expansion, and both T-Mobile and AT&T planning to further increase speeds next year, being a data “short timer” might be beneficial now. In light of that, a prepaid plan or some other no-contract offering might be the best way to hedge bets against the coming mobile broadband tsunami of 2011 and beyond.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

  1. Please proof what you print / publish.

    “I’d argue that it might actually the worst, or at the very least, a time to be aware of the many new choices available.

    Yes, we want the mobile web on every gadget, and we want it work everywhere we go, ”

    for example.

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  2. Have been using a MiFi from Verizon for the last while and it’s been great. Ever since I moved, I haven’t signed up for Comcast yeat. I’ve just been using my MiFi. I just wish there wasn’t a bandwidth cap. I’m always nervous that I’m going to go over.

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  3. Justin,
    You should checkout Sprint’s unlimited data plans available on the Sierra Overdrive 3G/4G hotspot.

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  4. [...] of its browser and see that the U.S. is number eight on the list. Given that I just wrote about how the current U.S. mobile broadband market is undergoing some upheaval with a multitude of new net…, I wondered what figure Opera used for data costs in the [...]

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  5. That Clearwire plan sounds like it’s got my name on it. I pay $38+fees right now for DSL – $50/month for unlimited 4G speed is sweet.

    Question Kevin – why don’t these articles appear on jkotr? I thought this was mobile tech?

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  6. [...] For carriers, this is a heaven sent opportunity. While they were unable to introduce per-bit metered pricing on broadband networks, they can now use somewhat valid excuse of “limited” spectrum and the huge cost of build out as a way to introduce metered pricing. And guess what, one-by-one they have all started to shank the much loved flat rate monthly plan in the back. (Check out our handy mobile broadband buying guide.) [...]

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  7. [...] the changes happening today in mobile broadband that make 3G access cheaper, as 4G networks roll out, operators are cutting off flat-rate plans and switching to pricing [...]

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  8. [...] to tiered data could fit the bill for all parties involved with both 3G and 4G networks. (Related: see our mobile broadband guide to understand how data networks are currently migrating to 4G). The only remaining variable is how [...]

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  9. [...] spectrum, consumer demand, and of course, profits. As I’ve mentioned recently, we’re currently undergoing a seismic shift in mobile broadband; perhaps the biggest since the implementation of 3G networks a handful of years ago. Carriers are [...]

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  10. Sprint recently had a free to use 4g mobile broadband terminal at the airport (forget which one but maybe JFK), which I thought was a great idea until I used it. Unfortunately for them the speed was worse than dial-up so not much of a show case!!

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