How to get pay-as-you-go 3G service for your iPad

If you don't feel like paying extra for a 3G-capable iPad, don't worry: You can get mobile Internet access by leveraging a little third-party gear.

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
2 min read
The Broadband2Go aircard: No contract, no monthly minimum. Virgin Mobile

iPad buyers face a difficult decision: to 3G or not to 3G? After all, the entry-level 3G iPad costs $629, plus $14.99/month for a 250MB data plan or $29.99/month for unlimited. You don't have to sign up for a contract, which is great, but the fact remains you're paying yet another wireless bill for service on a single device.

There is another option. With a Verizon MiFi card, a combination wireless modem and Wi-Fi router, you could choose the cheaper Wi-Fi-only iPad and still enjoy 3G Internet just about anywhere. Plus, you get to share that connectivity with up to four other users/devices.

However, that's a much pricier solution: The MiFi locks you into a two-year Verizon contract and charges you a minimum of $39.99 per month--$59.99 if you choose the unlimited data plan.

That's why I'm hitching my wireless wagon to Virgin Mobile's Broadband2Go, a pay-as-you-go service that requires no contract and no monthly minimums. (Here's my hands-on review of the service in case you're interested.)

The CradlePoint PHS300 is a portable Wi-Fi router that works with Virgin Mobile's pay-as-you-go broadband. Buy.com

Broadband2Go works with a Novatel-made USB aircard that sells for $99.99 (or $88.54 at Walmart). Obviously you can't plug it directly into an iPad (the modem was made with laptops in mind), but there's a workaround: the CradlePoint PHS300.

Plug the Broadband2Go into this compact, battery-powered Wi-Fi router and presto: You've got MiFi-style functionality from a pay-as-you-go provider.

Plus, the PHS300 supports up to 16 simultaneous users/devices, versus just five on the MiFi. It's not quite as elegant a solution, but it's definitely cheaper in the long run.

Emphasis on "long run." The PHS300 has a list price of $179.99 (ouch), but it's currently on sale at Buy.com for a more reasonable $99.99 shipped. Add in the price of the Broadband2Go modem and you're looking at an initial investment of $200. As for the available rate plans, here's the breakdown:

Virgin Mobile's Broadband2Go service plans start at just $10. Virgin Mobile

Virgin's rates aren't necessarily better than Apple's. While it's nice to have the option of a $10/10-days plan, Apple gives you 1.5 times the data--and a 30-day window--for just $5 more. And obviously anyone looking for unlimited data is better off with Apple's $29.99 per month.

However, the CradlePoint/Virgin Mobile solution lets you share the broadband wealth. Connect your laptop, your iPad, your iPod Touch, and any other Wi-Fi gear, all at the same time. What's more, Apple may not rope you into a contract, but iPad 3G service isn't technically pay-as-you-go: You get charged month-to-month unless you cancel it.

I know this option won't appeal to everyone, but I think it's worth considering if you prize pay-as-you-go savings, contract-free convenience, and broadband service that's not limited to a single device.

By the way, if you're interested in the nuts and bolts of this configuration, stay tuned for a how-to guide from fellow iPhone Atlas blogger David Martin. He'll explain how to set up a CradlePoint router and use it with an iPad.