Ask Maggie: On 4G future-proofing and buying prepaid traveler plans

This week's tech advice column helps readers with questions about whether 3G phones of today will work on 4G networks of tomorrow, among other burning topics.

A tech consumer's worst nightmare is buying a hot new device today only to find that it's obsolete or outdated within a few months or a year.

Ask Maggie

With the quick pace of innovation in wireless technology these days, it's a dilemma that is hard to avoid. This week I break the hard news to a reader that 3G phones of today won't be compatible with the ultra fast 4G networks of tomorrow.

I also try to help a Canadian reader, who travels to the U.S., figure out the best option for buying prepaid voice and data services to be used on his existing phone. Surprisingly, it's not as easy as you think it would be. And finally, I answer a question about using the Motorola Droid X as a wireless modem.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you've got a question, please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

Future-proofing for 4G?

Hi Maggie,

I recently called AT&T's cancellation department and informed them that, due to my broken HTC Fuse being out of warranty, I was seriously considering canceling my 2-year contract 10 months early, paying the $125 early termination fee, and going to Sprint's cheaper pricing, highly rated 4G phones, and new 4G network.

AT&T offered a pretty good deal to get me to stay. They said they would essentially make me eligible for a new customer offer that is $25 less than the pricing that was advertised, with the exception of iPhones. This sounded good to me, but I was concerned about when AT&T would deploy 4G. I indicated to them that I wasn't crazy about being locked into a new phone for two years that couldn't support AT&T's new 4G network when it eventually gets rolled out. The cancellation department told me that as long as the device I selected worked off AT&T's HSPA or HSPA+network, my device would be 4G capable once AT&T made the jump.

Is that true? In reading your recent column about what 4G means , I see no mention of AT&T, and, from what I gather, when they do deploy 4G it will be using LTE.

The Samsung Captivate is a phone I am considering buying and the specs indicate that it does work on an HSPA+ network. Any help you can provide as soon as possible would be appreciated, as I am stuck in limbo and need to make a decision very quickly.

Thanks so much,

Will

Dear Will,

Congratulations on negotiating a better deal with AT&T. That's terrific. Unfortunately, the sales representative you were talking to is misinformed about whether existing 3G phones can be upgraded to 4G.

First, let me explain where AT&T is in its network upgrade cycle. AT&T is currently testing 4G LTE technology. The company expects to begin deploying the LTE service next year. It plans to cover 70 million to 75 million people with the 4G LTE service by the end of 2011 .

Meanwhile, the company has been upgrading its current 3G network with HSPA+ technology. HSPA+ is a 3G wireless technology that offers speeds similar to so-called 4G technologies, such as LTE and WiMax. Theoretical download speeds for HSPA+ are 21Mbps. And real life speeds are comparable to LTE and WiMax, which offer speeds somewhere in the 3Mbps to 10Mbps range.

AT&T is expected to have the HSPA+ upgrade completed by the end of 2010 and the network should cover about 250 million potential customers. So in terms of coverage, AT&T is expected to offer HSPA+ speeds throughout most of its network this year. And it will offer LTE service to a portion of its footprint by the end of 2011.

But even though the network will be completed this year, AT&T does not actually have any handsets that can take advantage of the new technology. Currently, AT&T does not offer any HSPA+ handsets. The Samsung Captivate that you mentioned in your question is not HSPA+ compatible. The only HSPA+ handsets I am aware of are offered on T-Mobile USA's network: the HTC G2 and the HTC MyTouch. (T-Mobile USA is also upgrading to HSPA+).

The 3G handsets that AT&T offers today will not be compatible with either the HSPA+ network nor will they work on the future LTE network. That said, AT&T has announced an HSPA+ laptop card that is HSPA+ compatible and is supposedly software upgradeable to LTE .

This is very confusing for consumers. And it doesn't help that you are getting misinformation from the AT&T sales representative. But in general, most technologies can be designed to be backward compatible, meaning that a phone designed for LTE or HSPA+ networks will also work on AT&T's older networks. But it's very rare for a device to be able to work on future technologies, such an HSPA phone working on an LTE network.

In the case of LTE, the technology is still evolving. There is currently only one handset on the market that supports LTE. It's being used on MetroPCS's network. Verizon Wireless executives have said they expect to launch LTE-capable handsets in the first quarter of 2011.

In the future, AT&T may work with a device maker to put the software upgradeable technology in new phones, which would future-proof HSPA devices. But that hasn't happened yet. So all current AT&T phones do not have this capability.

In summary, if speed is really important to you, you might want to wait a little longer for an HSPA+ phone from AT&T. That said, I wouldn't get too hung up on waiting for an LTE phone. AT&T's HSPA+ network will be plenty fast. And it will cover a much wider footprint. It's very likely you won't live or work in an area that has consistent LTE coverage for some time. Another thing to consider is that the first LTE phones will likely suck tons of battery juice, so you might want to wait a couple of years anyway for device models that have better battery performance.

Roaming in America

Dear Maggie,

I travel from Canada to the U.S. regularly and am looking to purchase a prepaid SIM card to use in my unlocked GSM phone. Are there plans where I can buy a bundle of minutes for both calling and data that are good for about a year? What I'm trying to avoid is roaming charges that I'm incurring when using my phone in the U.S. Any suggestions?

Thanks,

Ted

Dear Ted,

For such a simple question, you'd probably expect a simple answer. But unfortunately, U.S. carriers don't want to make it too simple for people to get low-cost services for occasional use.

That said, there is a way to get the service you want and need, but it might take a little work to figure out a plan that works best for you. First, I suggest looking at AT&T and T-Mobile USA. These are national U.S. carriers with large footprints, and good to decent coverage in most large U.S. cities. So the coverage will likely be sufficient for most areas you'd likely visit in the U.S. AT&T and T-Mobile also happen to use the SIM-based GSM cell phone standard, which means you can swap out your SIM card and put in a new one.

Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel, along with some other well-known prepaid brands in the U.S., such as MetroPCS and Cricket, are CDMA-based. If you use their pay-as-you-go services, you'll have to get a new phone. And it sounds like you'd rather use the phone you already have.

Unfortunately, figuring out how to get a SIM for an unlocked phone on either AT&T's or T-Mobile's Web sites is difficult, so I called representatives from AT&T and T-Mobile to find out the best options for you. Depending on how often you visit and how much you plan to use your phone, there are several options.

T-Mobile:

T-Mobile said you can buy a prepaid SIM card for an unlocked phone for $6.99 over the phone or online. If you buy it in the store it will cost closer to $25.

With this prepaid SIM, you have the option of selecting from several different plans. You can get prepaid plans that allow you to add money for voice and texting starting in $10 increments. The money must be used within a certain time period, such as a month or three months. You can also add $100 to your service, and service will be good for a year. Money is deducted from your account depending on how long you talk.

The T-Mobile representative I spoke with said that you could not add smartphone data services to a prepaid phone unless it was on a monthly basis.

Instead, he suggested buying a monthly Talk, Text, and Data plan for $30 a month. It gives you 1,500 minutes of talk or texting and 30MB of data for the month. The service does not require a contract. You can use it for one month or for multiple months. Unless you sign up to have your credit card automatically charged, the service will only be active for the month you paid for it.

The only thing to be careful about with this plan and all prepaid plans is that the account must be active every three months or so or you forfeit your phone number. This means you have to add money to the account in regular intervals to avoid losing your number and the value of your account. If you let your account and phone number expire, you can still sign up for service. But you'll just have a different phone number, which may or may not be an issue for you.

AT&T
AT&T's plan is more complicated. And what complicates it further is that two different sales associates gave me conflicting information on how you can get a prepaid SIM card. AT&T's PR team also did not respond by press time to my request to clarify the situation.

So here is what I was told the sales reps. One sales representative told me over the phone that you could buy a $5.99 SIM card over the phone that will work in your unlocked phone from Canada. Then you can sign up for a GoPhone prepaid voice service. She said you could sign up for a separate pay-as-you go data service called MediaNet.

Another sales representative, who I chatted with online, contradicted this and said that the $5.99 SIM card is only for monthly AT&T customers. He said you cannot buy the GoPhone prepaid service without buying an actual GoPhone phone. He also said he wasn't sure that a GoPhone SIM would work in an unlocked phone.

If the second representative is correct and you need a special GoPhone SIM to get prepaid service, then I'd suggest buying a cheap GoPhone online and using that SIM card. Refurbished GoPhones are as cheap as $9.99 online. The other option is to go to an AT&T store and ask to buy a GoPhone SIM or a GoPhone.

But even the sales rep said you'd likely pay less buying the GoPhone than buying the GoPhone SIM card separately. This makes no sense to me, but my guess is that AT&T is trying to discourage people from buying prepaid SIM cards to plug into their own devices.

Once you have a prepaid-ready SIM card that will work on your phone, you can sign up for the GoPhone services. Like T-Mobile's prepaid plans, AT&T offers a range of prepaid voice options. The amount of time that you can use the service before it expires depends on the amount of money added to the account. There is a $100 option that offers service for a year.

If you want to add data to the service, you can buy a separate MediaNet data service package. For $4.99, you can get 1MB of data for the month. And $19.99 gets you 100MB of data for the month.

I hope this information is helpful. Because this is such a confusing topic, and because even the operator offers customers conflicting information, it would be great if people shared their thoughts and experiences. So please feel free to share your comments in the section below or send me an e-mail and I will add the useful tips to the story.

Tethering Droids

Dear Maggie,

Is it possible to use the Motorola Droid X smartphone to connect my laptop to the Internet? How much would that cost?

Sincerely,

Donald

Dear Donald,

Yes, the Droid X is one of several phones from Verizon Wireless that allows you to turn the phone into a mobile hot spot and connect up to five devices to it. The cost of the plan is $20 a month on top of your voice and data service fees. This plan gives you 2GB worth of data for all the tethered devices and overages are 5 cents for every megabyte you exceed over the 2GB limit.

I doublechecked with CNET Reviews editor Bonnie Cha, who tests smartphones, and she put together a quick list of other smartphones on Verizon Wireless that offer this capability:

Sprint also offers a couple of phones that offer this capability, including the HTC Evo 4G and the Samsung Epic 4G.

 

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