True confession: I tend to be a bit behind the curve when it comes to new technology. Which is a shame, since there are so many devices and apps available that make money-saving easy.
My Luddite ways were recently highlighted when I drilled down into my spending to see where I could save. I am clearly on the leanest cell phone plan for what I need; I try to feed my family one fewer serving of meat each week (in part for health reasons); and I also told the house cleaner that I can make due once every other week instead of weekly. But when I got to my cable bill, I felt stuck. Internet service and my Apple AirPort Wi-Fi adaptor are the only reasons I subscribe to Time Warner Cable. We don’t watch TV or use an Internet-based phone service. I pay more than $55 monthly for Wi-Fi, and that seemed steep to me. But what are my alternatives? A Google search for “Wi-Fi services” left me more confused than before. I realized that I had no idea.
So I reached out to a few tech experts to educate me about the various Wi-Fi services available. Here’s what I found:
How it works: The cable company must first install the service, and you then connect to the Internet through a modem, which is either provided by the cable company or bought on your own.
Pros: “Cable is strong, fast and works 99 percent of the time,” says Robert Siciliano, a digital-life expert for security-software maker McAfee. “It is usually secure as long as the connection is protected with a password.”
Cons: Cable isn’t cheap. Customer service isn’t always great, and cable requires a contract.
Cost: You’ll pay $50 to $100 monthly and up, plus an installation fee. Depending on your plan, you’ll usually get a bundle package that may include cable TV, VoIP phone and Internet.
Who should use it: Anyone who depends on fast, reliable Internet or works from a home office. (Through September 1, save 50% on McAfee Internet Security 2013.)
How it works: Free Wi-Fi is made available in popular areas like parks, coffee shops or shopping areas.
Pros: It’s a free, fast service that doesn’t require additional equipment.
Cons: There are security risks, and service is limited to the hotspot area.
Cost: It’s free, baby.
Who should use it: Those who like to work in public spaces and recognize the associated risks. Siciliano recommends using Hotspot Shield, a free software that protects your computer or device from hackers.
How it works: Using WiMAX technology, which beams an Internet connection across entire cities, Clear connects customers directly to Wi-Fi Internet service without wires. The company provides customers with a router (which is not portable), dongle or USB (both of which are portable).
Pros: Clear promises decent speed, and it’s portable and cost-effective. There are no long-term contracts involved, and you’ll get a secure connection and unlimited 4G coverage.
Cons: Mobile customers report spotty service, and Clear is only available in certain areas, so check the coverage map before pursuing the service.
Cost: Clear charges $35 to $50 monthly, and there are often rebates on hardware.
Who should use it: “Clear is good for heavy mobile-Internet users,” says Reuben Yonatan, the CEO at GetVoIP, an editorial site that reviews VoIP and Wi-Fi services and devices. Yonatan adds that the two-tier pricing system allows those downloading lots of videos and large documents to opt for the bigger package, while others can get by with the more basic plan.
How it works: Boingo is a series of Wi-Fi hotspot networks around the world. Subscribe by the hour, day or month at airports, cafes and other hotspots. Access with your username and password through the free Boingo app
Pros: There are international plans available, offering the promise of flexibility.
Cons: The hourly access app is only available for iOS, and Boingo coverage can be spotty.
Cost: You’ll pay $10 per month and up for an unlimited plan. Hourly plans are available, and rates vary based on your location.
Who should use it: Road warriors who need access anywhere in the world but have other means of connecting as backups.
Tethering, otherwise known as “personal hotspot”
How it works: Many newer smartphones and tablets can act as a modem/hotspot beaming an Internet connection to a computer either by cable or wirelessly.
Pros: This is convenient, as it works wherever your mobile device works. Plus, you have a secure connection.
Cons: Tethering is spotty, slow and expensive.
Cost: Most devices require paying for an additional tethering plan at $30 to $60 monthly. In other cases, tethering drains your data plan.
Who should use it: Light users. Most people utilize tethering in emergency situations like when their Internet connection is down at home or they’re somewhere without regular Wi-Fi access. “If you can, do your research and know ahead of time that they have coverage where they plan to use their tether,” Siciliano says.
Rip off your neighbor’s service
How it works: If your upstairs neighbor or the guy next to you at the coffee shop didn’t secure his or her Wi-Fi connection with a password, you can just connect via your device.
Pros: It’s free and fast.
Cons: Not secure. And it’s illegal if you are hijacking without permission. You’re at the mercy of your neighbor—the minute he or she slaps a password on the service, you are out of luck.
Who should use it: Someone with a neighbor who says it is okay.
How it works: As part of its plans, AT&T Wireless and U-Verse subscribers get Wi-Fi access in 30,000 public hotspots worldwide, including Starbucks and McDonald’s.
Pros: It’s free for AT&T subscribers and is reliable and safe. “AT&T has more Wi-Fi hotspots than any other wireless carrier,” Yonatan says.
Cons: There’s no subscription model available, and it’s not a great deal for non-AT&T customers.
Cost: Non-AT&T peeps will pay $3.99 to $7.99 per session, but service is free and unlimited for existing AT&T customers.
Who should use it: Existing AT&T customers or others in a pinch.
(Stay connected with AT&T sales or get $25 off AT&T U-Verse.)
After getting the lowdown on these services, I realize that my Time Warner Cable Wi-Fi setup is just fine for me—and it’s a decent value. Now, if anyone reading this wants to suggest otherwise, I’m all ears.