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Learning, Sharing, and Teaching => Ask a Mustachian => Topic started by: nereo on June 26, 2017, 12:32:00 PM

Title: short term phone/carrier exclusively for a WiFi hotspot (USA)
Post by: nereo on June 26, 2017, 12:32:00 PM
Bit unusual situation, but I need a phone to be used as a WiFi hotspot, but only for the next 2 months.

Question: what's a cheap phone + carrier combination for this?  my current phone can't be used as a mobile hotspot, and I don't want to spend hundreds on a phone I won't use after this summer, nor do I want a contract (I won't use this phone again after September - maybe resell it).

Location: New England (Maine + NH).
Title: Re: short term phone/carrier exclusively for a WiFi hotspot (USA)
Post by: Daley on June 26, 2017, 01:33:17 PM
Price wise for data, going T-Mo based is the cheapest per GB, but Maine coverage will get dicey much past the I-95 corridor beyond the Portland-Bangor stretch.

US Mobile ( will let you do data only plans in any device with a base-price of $2/month for the SIM card plus whatever data plan you want up to 10GB at $30, and additional data add-ons beyond 10GB at the same price as the plan itself ($14 for 1GB, $20 for 4GB, $25 for 6GB, $30 for 10GB). The SIM will cost $4, though. They're T-Mobile based, so you should research coverage first to make sure it'll work... but if it'll work, they're literally some of the cheapest prepaid data prices you'll find currently.

If you need AT&T coverage, the cheapest AT&T mobile data coverage I've found is through (, $30/month for 3GB through $125/month for 20GB. SIM card costs $20.

As for a device, you don't necessarily need a smartphone or a phone at all for tethering/WiFi access. A WiFi hotspot or USB modem can be frequently cheaper and more reliable. A carrier unlocked MiFi Liberate 5792 should work with AT&T or T-Mobile bands, and should be able to be bought for under $70. If you go with for the AT&T coverage, however, you could technically use an AT&T locked model, which can be had for half that. Alternatively, there's also the Unite 770s, with similar pricing locked versus unlocked. Ebay is your best choice, go with a reseller that specializes in mobile equipment or networking. The device prices should hold their value through the summer, especially if you get the carrier unlocked model.

If you still want to go phone, Microsoft Windows Phones (such as the carrier unlocked Lumia 640 or 650 which will have the necessary support bands for AT&T or T-Mobile data) can still be had at under $100 and fully supports doing WiFi hotspots, though it can sometimes get a little quirky to set up with some carriers. I would recommend the WiFi hotspot for the money, honestly.

If you absolutely need Verizon coverage, Verizon Prepaid ( data only plans range $20 for 1GB usable over 30 days to $100 for 10GB usable over 60 days. Line activation is $35, but is waived if you buy a device from them directly. Their prepaid Jetpack MHS900L is currently $50 online. This price combined with the activation fee undercuts the financial viability of buying an existing device for cheap and activating. There's also ( who offers Verizon-based data-only plans 1GB for $20/month through 5GB for $55/month, and they offer free SIM cards if you bring your own used Verizon hotspot at the moment (plenty on Ebay for well under $25 - just search for one with a clean ESN and LTE support, there are plenty of models), though they normally charge $5 for the SIM. The prices can kinda cut six a one, half dozen the other between Verizon Prepaid and BOOM, depending on data quantity, service time, and device. You'd just need to do the math and know how much data you'll need.

These are literally the best options for mobile data across the three best networks for doing data only, usable as a prepaid hotspot without a service contract.

Any questions, let me know.
Title: Re: short term phone/carrier exclusively for a WiFi hotspot (USA)
Post by: nereo on June 26, 2017, 03:02:40 PM
Thanks I.P.
I love when you ask a question on these forums nad get such a detailed response.

Follow up question: Perahps I should have mentioned this in my OP, but the reason for wanting a WiFi hotspot is that this will be for a boat.  In previous years we've been well out of cellular range so Sat phone was our only option - this time we'll be closer to shore and we should have decent cellular coverage.

So - does that change anything?  On the surface a MiFi liberate (or similar device) seems like our ideal situation, since we have no desire to actually make phone calls from this connection - it's more for receiving and sending smaller data files (<10MB) as well as email connectivity.
Title: Re: short term phone/carrier exclusively for a WiFi hotspot (USA)
Post by: Daley on June 26, 2017, 06:15:52 PM
The seafaring does change a few things.

Do keep in mind that you're not likely to get much of any reception with any mobile network beyond about three miles off coast, five tops. Of the three choices and knowing the map coverage I do for the region, although they never show coverage over water, I suspect AT&T coverage will give you the better coverage in the region between the three... so is likely your safest choice. That said, ask the natives in the area with their sea legs who has the most consistent coverage offshore, and pick based on that. It'll probably be either AT&T or Verizon, and my gut says AT&T will probably be the better of the two, but my gut has been known to be wrong on occasion.

It's also going to change my recommendation on WiFi hotspots, as it might be beneficial to get a model specifically with external antenna connectors, and pick up some directional amplifying antennas to go with it. Unfortunately, the MiFi Liberate 5792 is not one of those models. You'd be better served with a model such as the Sierra Wireless/Netgear Unite AC770S, which has two MIMO antenna connections. If you go Verizon, just be sure to get a model with external antenna connections available. Physical antenna connections will always trump passive antenna booster connections if signal boosting is needed for reception, so stick with a dedicated hotspot with external antenna connectors given there really aren't any phones made anymore that have those connection points. I unfortunately don't have any specific antenna recommendations in mind, but some should be easy enough to find if the boat doesn't already have antenna boosters for 700-900 and 1700-2100MHz frequencies. Mind you, though, even with directional signal boosting, you're only going to get coverage so far out, and when you don't have signal, you won't have signal.... but I'm sure you know that already.

The best tools for the job you probably already know, VSAT and SSB if you officially go off-shore, and that's a bit farther out of my wheelhouse than I'm willing to spend the time to catch up on for just one person who probably already knows more about the subject and options available than I do. Sorry.
Title: Re: short term phone/carrier exclusively for a WiFi hotspot (USA)
Post by: nereo on June 27, 2017, 05:23:03 AM
Thanks again I.P.

Yes, we're going to be staying fairly close to the shore this expedition, always within 3nm and at anchor we'll be just a few hundred meters offshore. 
Ironically in this region cellular signals over the water are often better than over land, as there are no obstructions (line of site and all).

Our boat carries both a sat-phone (VSAT) and SSB, but the former too pricy and slow for data and the latter it isn't even an option. 
Title: Re: short term phone/carrier exclusively for a WiFi hotspot (USA)
Post by: Daley on June 27, 2017, 08:42:11 AM
No problem. Sounds like you're good to go, then! And glad to help, as always.

Perhaps you won't even need external antennas then, but go with the Unite AC770S anyway. Better to have the option and not need it than not have the option and need it. Fortunately, you should be able to get the cheaper AT&T locked version used/refurbished going with, as the device will still work and you can change the APN settings so long as the SIM card is AT&T network based. (Settings are on page 51 of the manual. ( Just be sure that the device sold has a clean IMEI, just like with used/refurbished phone shopping.

This said, on the subject of specifically thinking more about it... given you're only doing a couple months, total pricing might be a wash between them and buying AT&T prepaid data directly, depending on how much data you plan to use. is cheaper per GB, but charges $20 for the SIM. AT&T prepaid is a bit pricier per GB, but hands out free SIM cards for activation. Either way, you won't be beholden to a contract and it'll probably be a wash on price.

Our boat carries both a sat-phone (VSAT) and SSB, but the former too pricy and slow for data and the latter it isn't even an option.

The latter isn't an option? Are you talking yourself specifically, or in general? I only ask because I thought PACTOR 3/4 modems over HF SSB had kind of become the de-facto for email and weather out at sea, what with it being cheaper than a VSAT backhaul per byte, and all. I also know PACTOR 1 modems are cheaper than dirt, but limited to a painful 20bps.
Title: Re: short term phone/carrier exclusively for a WiFi hotspot (USA)
Post by: MaryByrne on June 28, 2017, 05:51:46 PM
Popping in to say DON'T DO CRICKET, it's $10 hotspot + $55 for phone plan (to use hotspot) and x for phone (80-120). I bought it excited because my parents already pay for my phone and plan, but using the hotspot used 2GB in around 5 hours and then it basically doesn't work until the next month (I had already used 2GB normally using phone) because it takes 10 minutes to load an all text page despite having unlimited data. After 4GB of use its the ridiculously slow data. Good conclusion of this is, I love my very close libraries I can bike to and get free wifi "unlimited" during their open hours.