Pay as you go broadband Internet services are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to costly monthly contract costs for services you may or may not actually use. You do pay a bit more of a premium for the bandwidth you use under these services, but you aren’t typically locked into a monthly payment that stands whether you use the service or not.

Each wireless provider offers its own take on pay as you go broadband services. Some of these services (including that offered by Clear) can be as easily used as your primary home Internet connection as it is a portable broadband plan while you’re on the go. Whatever its form or function, the basic principle of being able to pay for access for either a limited period of time or amount of data remains pretty much the same.

Where these offerings differ is in supported hardware, service area, limitation, and speed. These factors will be the most important ones to pay attention to when selecting a pay as you go broadband provider.

Pay as You Go Broadband Hardware

Your Guide to Choosing a Pay as You Go Broadband PlanUnlike standard contract-based service, pay as you go service providers generally don’t subsidize the hardware you need to connect to the Internet. This hardware can take the form of a mobile hotspot, wireless modem, USB stick, or even a smart phone or tablet with tethering capabilities.

Some time ago, I used a Samsung Blackjack as a tethering device. It worked great as a phone, but its real advantage came in the ability to use it to connect to the Web on a laptop when Wi-Fi wasn’t available. In general, service providers aren’t terribly keen on supporting BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) unless these devices are sold and supported directly by the service provider.

Mobile Hotspot
Mobile hotspots are useful tools for people with multiple devices (or friends with multiple devices) that benefit from Wi-Fi Internet connectivity. These hotspots are fairly secure and easy to transport from place to place. What makes most of these even more useful is the fact that they operate off of battery power. The average battery life for a mobile hotspot sits somewhere around four hours, though they can be charged via USB. If you can plug your laptop into an outlet, then there’s a good chance you’ll be able to enjoy an Internet connection on your laptop, tablet, mobile phone, and any other Wi-Fi device for an indefinite period of time.

USB Stick
If all you want to do is provide an Internet connection to your laptop, then the USB stick option is probably what you’re searching for. These are typically quite a bit cheaper than the mobile hotspots because they generally don’t provide any Wi-Fi service. You might be able to connect to an already-established wireless network and share the connection provided by the USB stick, but this isn’t a guarantee in all situations.

The advantage of these devices is that it adds a bit to your security because the only real connection happening is within the secured wireless connection between the USB stick and the provider. You can often find these for ~$10. They’re remarkably cheap.

Wireless Hub or Router
Not all pay as you go broadband providers operate on wireless signals. There are some options out there for pay as you go DSL that offer routers or hubs that enable you to connect desktop and laptop devices to your broadband connection with a wired or wireless connection. Some wireless broadband providers offer these types of devices to users as well, including Clear. These hubs are made to be plugged directly into a power outlet and run 24/7. They’re perhaps the best way to provide your home or office with pay as you go broadband service when your primary usage area isn’t going to change.

The disadvantage of this is that you’re not necessarily getting a faster speed for the higher initial hardware cost. You also don’t get the advantage of mobility or a built-in battery for use during power outages as you do with the mobile hotspot. Simply put, this is the workhorse you keep at the farm, not the racehorse you take to the track.

Pay as You Go Broadband Service Area and Speed

Service are is extremely critical in the world of pay as you go wireless broadband. The difference of a city block can mean having a good connection or no connection at all. This is especially true with 4G and 4GLTE service providers that may not have the newer standards in all locations. 4G LTE is still relatively new, and that means only being able to use your broadband devices in areas where it’s supported.

Pay close attention to the service maps each provider supplies. Compare these maps to your expected travel plans to determine if this is really the best investment to make. You might be surprised to find out just how bad connectivity can be when you’re just outside the optimal service area(s).

You might also want to weigh the connection types that your pay as you go broadband service offers. If you have a 4G LTE device that doesn’t support 3G/4G, then you’re going to find yourself with faster service when you have it and many more instances of no service at all when you don’t. A cloudy day can ruin your connectivity.

Meanwhile, a 4G connection (currently the most popular type offered by wireless broadband providers) can be just as fickle. You’re not really receiving much of a speed boost over 3G, either. 4G connections are also typically limited in terms of bandwidth and/or data transfer per dollar due to overcrowding on the network.

Pay as You Go Broadband Limitations

Not all service providers are created equal. Some will offer you “unlimited” data transfer on their 4G LTE network only to throttle your connection to below dial-up speeds if you cross a certain data threshold. 3G/4G service types are also generally quite restricted due, in part, to overcrowding. Providers can’t promise the same excellent service level around the clock. This means having to throttle their oversold bandwidth and essentially cripple your connection during peak times. What are those peak times? These could be around the clock if your provider deems it so.

Read the service agreement carefully. You should be aware of exactly how much control your provider has over your experience.