Mobile wifi hotspot plans and devices are growing in popularity, particularly with those who travel frequently or live a nomadic lifestyle. Broadband internet access has pretty much become as indispensable as the food we eat, water we drink, and air we breathe – it doesn’t matter where we are, we want it. Unfortunately, cheap mobile data is still a bit of an oxymoron.
Luckily, there are a lot of options out there and prices are on the decline. As I previously did with research into the cheapest prepaid plans and cheapest data plans, I similarly wanted to research and share what the cheapest mobile wifi hotspot plans on the market were. First, let’s start with some basics.
What is a Mobile Hotspot?
A mobile hotspot is device that allows you to connect one or multiple wifi-enabled devices in order to connect to the internet. Some people refer to a mobile hotspot as “MiFi”, however, MiFi is a registered brand name for mobile hotspot devices created by the Novatel company – not a name for the technology. Since MiFi was one of the first mobile hotspot devices, the MiFi name became a bit of the go-to name for mobile hotspot technology (similar to Kleenex for facial tissues).
Mobile hotspots can be dedicated mobile modem devices (similar to the one seen in the image to the right) or they can be produced by mobile devices such as mobile phones or tablets. As I’ll discuss next, there is a difference in experience. Today’s dedicated hotspots are cheap, tiny, and can often connect somewhere between 3-10 wifi-enabled devices simultaneously. Many of them enable a 4G LTE connection with 3G as backup.
Mobile Hotspot vs. Tethering with your Phone
Many of the mobile wifi hotspot device providers below additionally have free hotspot tethering on their prepaid capped data plans, where you can connect wifi-enabled devices to your phone and use it as a data passthrough. Unfortunately, today, no carriers offer unlimited data tethering on unlimited data plans without significantly pumping the brakes on speeds when you reach a certain data allotment.
So why would you want to buy a hotspot device (that is only a hotspot device) when you could just buy a mobile phone and tether it to your wifi devices for free?
It’s a great question. For those who are frequent hotspot users, a dedicated hotspot is more reliable than tethering from your phone. And there are a few other reasons why a dedicated mobile hotspot device can make sense for certain users than tethering:
- Battery life: mobile hotspots have a much longer lasting battery life than mobile phones, particularly tethered ones.
- Free up your phone: a mobile hotspot lets you keep your phone free for taking calls and doing other work, particularly when on a 3G connection, where you can’t do both at the same time.
- Reliably tethering to multiple devices: while many mobile phones can tether multiple devices, the more devices that are tethered, the worse the experience, with drops, etc. Devices that are dedicated as a wifi modem can provide a better experience.
Mobile hotspots are cheap enough that, for power users, the benefits outweigh the cost of the device and the hassle of carrying a dedicated mobile hotspot device around.
Mobile Network Coverage Maps
When it comes down to it, as I highlighted in my cheapest prepaid plans post, there are really only 4 mobile national network operators left in the U.S.:
- AT&T Wireless
If you’re not one of those mobile providers, you’re classified as a mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO. MVNO’s do not own their own wireless spectrum and networks, they lease network access at wholesale prices from the big 4 and re-sell it to consumers.
As you’re reviewing what the best cheapest mobile hotspot providers are, it’s important to note what network they run on. A mobile hotspot is worthless if the provider does not have strong coverage (preferably 4G LTE) where you live and frequently travel to.
Here are the coverage maps of the big 4:
It’s worth noting that in recent speed tests, however, T-Mobile came in ahead of all other carriers. If T-Mobile coverage is strong in the areas you live and travel, a provider that runs off T-Mobile’s network might be better. But your experience, by location, may vary.
The Cheapest Mobile WiFi Hotspot Plans
Here is a rundown of the cheapest prepaid mobile hotspot plans I was able to find, including monthly/data costs, device costs, network used, and more.
|Mobile WiFi Hotspot Provider||Hotspot Plan Cost||Hotspot Device Cost||Mobile Network Used||Notes|
|AT&T hotspot||$25/mo: 2GB|
|Varies. $0+||AT&T 4G LTE, 3G||Pre-paid option called "AT&T PrePaid Mobile Hotspot". Additional data added at varying prices.|
|Boost Mobile hotspot||$25/mo: 1.5GB|
|ZTE Warp Connect: $49.99||Sprint 4G LTE, Enhanced LTE||Connect up to 10 devices.|
|FreedomPop hotspot||$0/mo: <500MB|
|Varies. $0||4G||Data is supported in many countries.|
|Karma hotspot||$3/month + $10/1GB used|
|Karma Go: varies||Sprint 4G LTE, 3G||If you're a heavy data user, Karma is an attractive offering.|
|Net10 hotspot||$10/14 days: 500MB|
$50/2 mo: 5GB
|ZTE: $29.99||Varies 4G LTE||Net10 is a Tracfone owned company and runs of varying networks.|
|NetZero hotspot||$0/mo: 200MB|
|$79.95 (certified pre-owned)||Sprint 4G LTE, 3G||$3.95 monthly access fee on plans (excludes the free plan).|
|Total Wireless hotspot||$35/mo: 5GB|
|Unimax U240C, $0||Varies 4G LTE, 3G||Tracfone brand sold online and at WalMart. High data plans.|
|Straight Talk hotspot||$15/mo: 1GB|
$40/2 mo: 4GB
$50/2 mo: 5GB
$75/2 mo: 7GB
|Varies. $0+||Verizon 4G LTE, 3G||2 month plans offer solid pricing w/ flexibility.|
|T-Mobile hotspot||$5/1 day: 500 MB|
$10/7 days: 1GB
"Simple Choice" (auto renew plans):
|Alcatel Linkzone: $99.99||T-Mobile 4G LTE, 3G||If you're in a T-Mobile coverage area, the auto-renew plans are a great deal. And its network is vastly improved.|
|Verizon hotspot||$20/mo: 2GB|
|Varies. $19.99+||Verizon 4G LTE, 3G||Verizon has the top 4G LTE network in speed and coverage. But, it's pricey.|
Here’s a pro tip. Since many of these plans come with free text messaging, but pricey data, you may want to learn how to send text messages to email, so you don’t have to constantly pay data fees when accessing your web browser.
Which mobile wifi hotspot plan do you use and why?