Apple iPad, Sprint Pairing Rocks Airwaves

The iPad hits the market this week, prompting many small-business owners to wonder if it's worth changing cell providers to get a hot new mobile device.
Author:
Publish date:

CUPERTINO, Calif. (TheStreet) -- The iPad hits the market this week, prompting many small-business owners to wonder if it's worth changing cell service providers to get a hot new mobile device.

Earlier this week,

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

shipped its cool, uber-hyped tablet computer. So how do you connect it? While the wi-fi-only units start at $499, the more robust wi-fi and mobile network iPad will run you $630, with data plans from

AT&T

(T) - Get Report

starting $15 per month.

If only it were that simple.

Verizon

(VZ) - Get Report

and

Sprint Nextel

(S) - Get Report

offer mobile hotspots that will enable the iPad to connect to the Web. And gadgets from companies such as

Cradlepoint

can take most cell data modems -- even those from

T-Mobile

and

Virgin Mobile

-- and turn those into wi-fi hotspots that an iPad can detect.

In theory, any provider can support the iPad. But you never know if something will work until you try it. And Apple has a strict -- and lame -- 14-day return policy. To be sure your sexy new iPad works, you'll need to quickly carve out time to test your connectivity. And if it doesn't work, take that sucker back.

With those limits in mind, here is our Spring 2010 Mobile Data Access Round-Up:

Sprint Mobile Broadband Connection Plan 3G/4G

: $60 per month for 5 gigabytes of data use for its third-generation (3G) network and unlimited for its fourth-generation (4G) network.

If you are looking for a mind-boggling wireless experience for the iPad -- or any wi-fi device -- pick Sprint. For now, the company is America's only real 4G data provider. We have tested the 4G and 3G versions of this network across the country and found the 4G access dazzling and the 3G service stable and flexible.

Sprint says 120 million users will have access to its 4G network by year's end, including customers in Los Angeles and Miami. All this may change when Verzion and AT&T roll out their 4G networks later this year. But for now, cellular data access is Sprint's game to lose.

Verizon Mobile Broadband

: Pre-paid plans start at $15 per day, $60 per month maximum for 5 gigabytes of data use.

Verizon offers solid 3G access with deep national coverage and flexible pay options. I like the $30-a-week, pay-as-you-go plan, because that's the duration of the average business trip. And $30 is a steal compared to insane hotel data access fees. Verizon's 3G data service was also more stable at high speeds in cars.

Verizon can be a fussier network to access, and its software can conflict with other code. But Verizon's excellent voice quality and discounts on package deals make it worth considering.

AT&T DataConnect

: Plans start at $35 for 20MB, $60 a month for 5 gigabytes of usage.

Relentless marketing and bad buzz over iPhone network quality has given the old Ma Bell a black eye for data. While coverage is spotty for iPhones, AT&T performed well in our data service tests. The sleeper here is AT&T's 18,000-hotspot wi-fi network, which we found surprisingly handy. It should work well with the iPad.

Bottom line

: Bad branding aside, iPad buyers will probably not be AT&T haters. My gut says that without the burden of the iPhone, the iPad should work just fine on AT&T.

I have always maintained bad iPhone connectivity is as much Apple's problem as it is AT&T's, but that's a subject for another column.

--

Reported by Jonathan Blum in New York

.

Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.