How 4G LTE can turn your vacation spot into a remote office

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon gives options for taking your broadband with you to the summer vacation house. Plus: how do you choose 4G LTE service anyway?

Who wants to be stuck in a stuffy office all summer? Thanks to 4G LTE service and mobile tethering, you don't have to. These technologies enable professionals to work from anywhere -- even from a lounge chair at the beach.

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In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer a reader advice on the best options for telecommuting from a vacation home. Thanks to improved wireless data access and new shared data plans from the biggest wireless providers, subscribers can turn their smartphones into mobile hotspots.

This makes getting occasional wireless data access for laptops, tablets, and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices easy and affordable. MiFis on inexpensive prepaid plans can also offer a great alternative for high-speed wireless Internet access. Even though these wireless options are likely too pricey to be your main source of broadband all year long, they offer an ideal solution for short term or intermittent use.

Also in this column, I advise another reader on how to determine which 4G LTE service will work best in his area.

Smartphone tethering vs. MiFi: Which one is best for me?

Dear Maggie,

My family has a summer home on a lake. We only use the place for two or three months out of the year. Because we aren't there most of the year, we don't have broadband. I'd like to be able to work from there a bit this summer, but since we don't have broadband, I'm not sure what to do. We do get pretty decent 4G wireless access at the cabin. So what are my best options for getting connected? Should I look into a MiFi?

Thanks,

City Slicker Turned Grizzly Adams

Dear City Slicker Turned Grizzly Adams,

You have a couple of options. The fact that you get decent 4G LTE wireless service is crucial to solving your dilemma.

Most smartphones can turn into mobile hotspots. So if you just need a hotspot every now and then, you can use the tethering and portable hotspot option on your phone. Any data used in this way will be counted against what's available as part of your monthly data plan for your phone.

If you think you will need the hotspot more often or there is some other reason you don't want to use your phone for it, such as you're on an unlimited data plan that prohibits tethering, you can sign up for a MiFi. All the major wireless carriers offer mobile hotspots and plans to go along with them. Just keep in mind that you will have to purchase a separate device in order to get this service. You can get a discount on a MiFi, but it will likely require you sign a monthly contract with a steep early termination fee for canceling early.

The other option is to buy the MiFi at full price and pay month-to-month for the service. But you should also keep in mind that there are often activation fees associated with these month-to-month contracts. So make sure you read the fine print before you buy.

Novatel Jetpack MiFi 4620L
One wireless option for your vacation needs: a MiFi device like the Verizon Jetpack. Dong Ngo/CNET

There are some low-cost options available. For instance, Freedom Pop is a good alternative to service from one of the four big carriers. It's biggest benefit is that it's inexpensive. If you can keep usage to less than 500MB a month, the service is free. If you want to use more than 500MB of data per month, you can pay for it. The 2GB service is $18 a month and for 4GB of data per month it's $29 a month. With the premiere service you can also rollover any unused data. And if you are willing to participate in offers and promote the FreedomPop brand on social media, you can earn even more free data usage. The company also offers a promotion to new subscribers who can get 2GB of data for free during the first month of service.

Again keep in mind that you must buy the hotspot at full price. The newest one, which offers 4G LTE service, is $200. But older models, which may not offer access to the fastest available wireless networks, cost $40. Once you pay for the device, you can pay for the service as you go. There's no contract or obligation to use the service, nor is there a daily fee for being subscribed to the service.

The only downside is that Freedom Pop uses Sprint's network to offer service. It actually uses Wi-Fi when that's available, and then Sprint's network when it's not. This isn't a huge problem if you are in an area where you get Sprint coverage, but if you aren't, then you won't get access at all.

The bottom line:

If you know you can already get 4G LTE access on your smartphone, just use the tethering and portable hotspot feature on your smartphone. (You can find this under settings on most Android phones.) This will use the bucket of data that you are already subscribed to under your data plan. If you think you are going to be using a lot of data from the lake house, you might want to consider bumping up your monthly usage cap for the months you'll be at the cabin. It will cost you more money, but you can always reduce your data package at the end of the summer when you don't expect to use so much data.

Even though wireless data is more expensive on a per bit basis than a traditional broadband connection, using your smartphone's data plan may actually cost you less in the long run since you only need the service a couple of months out of the year. This means you won't have the year-round expense of a landline broadband connection. What's more, using your smartphone instead of subscribing to a separate MiFi service will also allow you to use the service whenever you want without carrying around another device or signing up for a service.

Good luck and enjoy your summer!

Sprint vs. T-Mobile: Which network is really better?

Dear Maggie,

Thanks for writing this column. I am with Sprint, using a Samsung Galaxy S3 on an unlimited data plan. I am not happy. I'm considering going to T-Mobile. I live in Houston, Texas. Is there any way I can find out if T-Mobile will be any better in terms of network speed?

Thanks,

MT

Dear MT,

As you are probably aware, the speed of your wireless service depends on several factors, including the network technology that is being used to deliver the service. The fastest network technology offered by carriers today is 4G LTE service. All four of the major US wireless operators are building their 4G LTE networks. T-Mobile and Sprint are a bit behind their competitors AT&T and Verizon. But more 4G LTE is coming to T-Mobile and Sprint customers. Today there are likely some variations in terms of which markets have been deployed first, but eventually, T-Mobile and Sprint will cover much of the same territory with 4G LTE.

In places where your carrier hasn't built 4G LTE, it's likely that you will get 2G or 3G service. The difference between 4G LTE and a 3G service can vary, depending on the carrier you're using. For instance, Sprint's 3G service is considerably slower than its 4G LTE service. But the difference between 4G and 3G on T-Mobile is not as noticeable. (In fact, T-Mobile markets its HSPA+ service, which is really a 3G technology, as 4G because the speeds are close to what can be achieved on a true 4G LTE network.)

What this means for you as a consumer is that in places where Sprint hasn't yet turned up 4G LTE service, but still offers 3G service, you are going to notice much slower speeds. If you are a T-Mobile customer and you're in a market that doesn't yet have 4G LTE, but has the 3G HSPA+ service, the service is likely to still perform very well.

In terms of their 4G LTE network upgrades, Sprint and T-Mobile are targeting many of the same markets. These companies are focusing on the top urban markets where they can serve a lot of customers. Meanwhile, they are not likely to deploy much in suburban or rural markets.

This means that wherever T-Mobile is offering 4G LTE service today, you are likely to get Sprint service as well. And if it's not yet available, it will likely be coming. Meanwhile, AT&T and Verizon tend to have a more comprehensive network that covers more areas, including many suburban and rural communities.

Please keep in mind, this is very general information. To really understand how carriers will perform in certain markets, you need to do a little research.

The first thing you need to do is understand where 4G LTE is deployed for each carrier and where it's not. A good place to start are the network coverage maps published by each carrier. This will at least give you an idea of where the service is supposed to be deployed.

You can find maps of T-Mobile's and Sprint's coverage online. While they may offer some detail as to where, within your market, the service is deployed, your best bet is to ask friends, family, and co-workers who use either T-Mobile or Sprint how the service performs for them.

Also, if you're already out of contract with Sprint, you could try T-Mobile's service for yourself and see if it works. The major wireless carriers in the US all have a 14-day return policy. This means you can buy a new device and sign up for service, and if you aren't satisfied with, you can return the device within 14 days of purchase. There is often a restocking fee if you do return a product, so keep that in mind. But it's better than being stuck with an expensive phone you don't plan to use and you won't be required to pay an Early Termination Fee. (Of course, the ETF isn't a factor for T-Mobile's service anyway, since it has done away with strict contract plans.)

T-Mobile's return policy is posted on it website.

Sprint's return policy also gives you 14 days.

I hope this was helpful. And good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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