Which Carrier's Smart Phone and Mobile Broadband Plans Are Cheapest?

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When it comes to jumping onto the smart phone and mobile broadband bandwagon, consumers certainly have a lot to consider. Unlike standard voice plans, data packages can include everything from extra charges to usage caps. Plus, considering that each plan varies greatly by carrier, it can be difficult to do your research.

However, with falling prices and an ever-growing user base, there's hardly a better time to make the jump to mobile data. Better still, if you consider smaller carriers like Virgin Mobile or Cricket, you can often find a bargain. Here's a breakdown by costs and features of the plans several major carriers offer for mobile broadband and smart phone connectivity.

AT&T

Back in June, AT&T switched from unlimited to capped data packages on all of its smart phones and when it comes to pricing, it helps to even out the playing field. Like Verizon, AT&T's data packages are sold separate from its voice plans.

The carrier also has several options for mobile broadband connectivity—while AT&T doesn't have a mobile hotspot device like the Verizon MiFi 2200, you can order a 3G-enabled netbook or USB modems to connect to AT&T's network.

Smart Phone Data: 200MB/$15; 2GB/$25 monthly

Mobile Broadband: 200MB/$35; 5GB/$60 monthly

Top Phone: iPhone 4 ($199)

Boost Mobile

When it comes to plans, Boost Mobile keeps things simple. The contract-free carrier offers unlimited voice, text, and data on all three of its plans: You can choose to pay per day or per month and a separate BlackBerry plan adds on a $10 monthly surcharge. Coverage is mostly restricted to the coasts and some of the Midwest, but you'll be able to choose phones like the BlackBerry Curve 8330 or the Samsung Seek.

Smart Phone Data: Unlimited, but depends on plan length - $2/day; $50/month; $60/month on BlackBerry

Top Phone: BlackBerry Curve 8330 ($149)

Clear

When it comes to 4G coverage, you'll be hard pressed to find better consumer-level options outside of Clear. The company, who also provides 4G coverage for Sprint, currently offers 4G mobile broadband access in 58 cities across the U.S. In areas that aren't covered, you'll switch over to their 3G network (which requires a $10 monthly fee). None of the plans include hardware, but you can choose to lease or buy a USB modem or mobile hotspot.

Mobile Broadband: Plans start at $25 monthly; unlimited usage on all plans, but lower-tier plans have slower download speeds.

Cricket

As with many smaller service providers, Cricket doesn't have the largest reach, but if you happen to live within the provider's coverage area, you'll likely find some competitively priced phone packages. None of Cricket's four plans feature caps on voice or data, but mobile web starts at $45. Android-based smart phones and BlackBerry phones have exclusive packages at $55 and $60, respectively, but Cricket offers similar unlimited plans on voice and data. Cricket's mobile broadband plans do have service caps, but they're still within the same price range as their phone plans.

Smart Phone Data: Unlimited voice and data plans start at $45; Android phones: $55 monthly, BlackBerry: $60 monthly

Mobile Broadband: 2.5GB/$40; 5GB/$50; 7.5GB/$60 monthly

Top Phone: Samsung Messager Touch ($89.99)

MetroPCS

The regional carrier takes a page from carriers like Boost Mobile and Sprint when it comes to phone plans. MetroPCS doesn't cap any of its services on its four plans—the only thing that differentiates each plan (at $40, $45, $50, and $60) is the number of included features, which range from GPS navigation to international text messaging.

Smart Phone Data: Unlimited, but feature set depends on price - $40 to $50/month; $60/month on BlackBerry

Top Phone: BlackBerry Curve 8530 ($279)

Sprint

Unlike Verizon and AT&T, Sprint bundles data usage into its normal voice plans, so you don't have to pay extra for online connectivity. The carrier also offers 4G connectivity on several of its smart phones, though your mileage can vary greatly—coverage is still being rolled out on a patchwork basis, so many areas still can't take advantage of 4G's faster speeds. For 4G phones, you'll also have to pay an extra $10 monthly fee for premium data. Mobile broadband options cover similar territories as most other carriers in terms of pricing and options.

Smart Phone Data: Unlimited data and 450 minutes/$69.99 monthly (extra $10 monthly for 4G-capable phones)

Mobile Broadband: 4G(Unlimited), 3G(5GB)/$59.99 monthly

Tethering: $29.99 monthly

Top Phone: HTC Epic 4G, HTC Evo 4G ($199)

T-Mobile

The carrier might not have the hype that comes with handsets like the iPhone 4 and Motorola Droid 2, but it does feature some of the best rates for smart phone and mobile broadband connectivity. T-Mobile's webConnect mobile broadband program features two different plans: $24.99 per month gets you 200MB per month, while $39.99 per month has a 5GB cap. Plus, if you go over 5GB on the latter plan, no extra fees are applied.

T-Mobile smart phone data plans work similarly to carriers like Sprint and Virgin Mobile—unlimited data gets bundled with voice plans, and the cost is comparable to most of T-Mobile's competitors. You can also choose to forgo a two-year contract, which decreases long-term costs but increases upfront costs.

Smart Phone Data (w/o two-year contract): 500 minutes and unlimited data/$59.99; 1,000 minutes and unlimited data/$69.99; unlimited talk and data/$79.99 monthly

Mobile Broadband (w/two-year contract): 200MB/$24.99; 5GB/$39.99 monthly

Top Phone: Samsung Vibrant ($199)

Verizon

Android-based handsets and Big Red have had a pretty fruitful relationship over the past few years, thanks to smart phones like the Motorola Droid 2 and HTC Droid Incredible. Fortunately, Verizon subscribers can take full advantage of that chummy match.

Verizon smart phones still have unlimited data, though the carrier is expected to follow AT&T's lead and install a cap down the road. The company's multimedia phones require a smaller fee for data, but the service has a considerably smaller usage cap. Verizon also offers capped data plans for their prepaid phones, which vary depending on contract length. Additionally, broadband options include connectivity via USB modem, netbooks, and mobile hotspots.

Smart Phone Data: Unlimited data/$29.99 ; 25MB per month/$9.99 monthly

Prepaid - 100MB per day/$15 daily; 300MB per week/$30 weekly; 1GB per month/$50 monthly; 5GB per month/$80 monthly

Tethering: $29.99 data plan required - 2GB/$20 ; 5GB/$30; 5GB/$49.99 monthly (with voice plan only)

Mobile Broadband : 250MB/$39.99; 5GB/$59.99 monthly

Top Phone: Motorola Droid X ($199)

Virgin Mobile

Like Sprint and several other smaller carriers, Virgin Mobile bundles lots of features into various unlimited packages. For mobile broadband, the carrier offers one of the most generous packages: $40 each month gets you unlimited mobile broadband access. With smart phones, data is included in all three voice packages, so you're really only paying for extra minutes.

Smart Phone Data: Unlimited data for all plans (300 minutes/$25; 1200/$40; Unlimited minutes/$60 monthly)

Mobile Broadband: 100MB/$10 for 10 days; Unlimited/$40 monthly

Top Phone: BlackBerry Curve 8530 ($249)



U.S. Cellular

The Chicago-based service provider currently offers coverage in 24 states, but unlike many of its similarly sized competitors, the carrier takes after companies like Verizon Wireless when it comes to plans. Minutes and data ( starting at $30/month) are put into separate packages, though prepaid plans offer unlimited voice, data, and web access. U.S. Cellular also offers a single 3G mobile broadband package at $49.95 per month with a 5GB data cap.

Smart Phone Data: 5GB/$30 monthly

Mobile Broadband: 5GB/$49.95 monthly

Top Phone: HTC Desire ($199)

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