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A while back I talked about the TruConnect Mi-Fi portable WiFi hotspot I had purchased. It’s time for an update, and discussion of a couple of reasonable prepaid Wi-Fi alternatives.

First of all, I still use the TruConnect MiFi. In fact, I’m on my second one now. The first one stopped working after I dropped it; I bought a replacement and kept the battery from the old one, which means I now have access to twice the battery life, even before plugging in the three different battery backups I now have—bonus!

I don’t use it as much as I once did, since my Virgin Mobile LG smart phone has effectively limitless 4G connectivity (though I get bandwidth throttled after a couple of gigs, I’ve never come close to using that much data in a month). So no more using it to do email or instant messaging through the iPod Touch. There are plenty of days where I never pull it out of my pocket at all.

But the phone doesn’t have tethering. In fact, most prepaid services don’t support tethering, given that it’s not economical for them to offer “unlimited” bandwidth if you’re going to be using it on bigger devices that tend to use more of it than a tiny phone. So I still end up needing the MiFi if I want to use my Nexus 7 WiFi tablet anywhere. (And sometimes I even have to use it for my phone. Not sure why, exactly, but sometimes the 3G MiFi works in areas where my phone’s 4G data service conks out entirely. This happens a lot around the shopping mall in downtown Greenwood for some reason.)

It’s still pretty convenient for when I want to use the tablet, especially if I want to use it while I’m being driven somewhere, which is why I keep it—and why I put up with shelling out five bucks a month for it, for every month in which I use it. As long as I don’t do something stupid like forget I have it turned on and cause app downloads and updates to go through it instead of my home WiFi, it doesn’t cost a whole lot and it’s there when I need it. It’s not the fastest connection in the world, but more than sufficient for e-mail, instant messaging, social networks, and writing via Google Drive. But it would be nice to have something that didn’t hit me up for five bucks a month to keep using it.

One way to go for that is Wal-Mart’s own MiFi service, Internet on the Go. It doesn’t charge a monthly fee, it has a decent nationwide coverage map (the same as TruConnect’s, in fact, since it is provided via an arrangement with them), and its rates have improved considerably since I originally wrote that article; they now stand at $10 for 500 MB, $25 for 1.5 GB, and $45 for 3 GB (where a GB is defined as 1,000 MB, not 1,024). At the higher end, that’s about 1/3 of the price of TruConnect’s 3.9 cents per MB even without taking the $4.99 per month fee into account.

Your plan lasts for as long as you have money in the account, or until 12 months go by without you using any (though if you don’t use it for over 90 days, they may ding you for a 25% surcharge of the remaining time left on your account. Just logging on once within that 90-day period is enough to avoid it). There is no monthly fee, nor is there any requirement to add money once a month. The device itself is $80, which isn’t bad, but it doesn’t seem to be available on-line or even in most stores in my area. (Though it is available in one of them, 7 miles away…and it’s such a nice day, I might actually bicycle down that far. Tempting…)

But there’s another option, which offers even cheaper data if you are not going to be needing to use it that often. It’s called Karma. I came across a referral link from one of my Facebook friends for the service (I’m sure he won’t mind me sharing it) good for 500 free megabytes when you sign up. It uses its own unique WiFi hotspot, which costs $100. Unlike the 3G MiFis, it operates on Sprint’s 4G WiMAX network (nee Clearwire). Data costs $28 for 2 GB, $50 for 5 GB, or $180 for 20 GB—which blows Wal-Mart’s $45 for 3 GB offer right out of the water. And that’s not even the best part.

Karma operates on a bandwidth-sharing principle. It broadcasts an open hotspot signal, and anyone in range for it can sign up for an account themselves and get 100 free MB of data for use with that, or with any other Karma hotspot. And every time someone else signs up for an account via someone’s hotspot, the owner of the hotspot gets 100 MB of free bandwidth himself.

The fly in the ointment is, Sprint’s WiMAX really doesn’t have all that great of a coverage map. In fact, it doesn’t really have a “map” at all. Just a list of cities. It’s only available in “80+ US cities” (though it’s due to launch on the Sprint LTE network, expanding it to “over 300+ cities and much faster speeds,” later this year), and Indianapolis isn’t one of them. So it’s only good if you spend most of your time in one of those areas, and probably wouldn’t be all that beneficial if you were traveling. At least with my MiFi, I know I’m pretty much guaranteed signal as long as I stick to major highways.

So those are your options if you’re wanting to add mobile pay-as-you-go WiFi to your tablet or e-reader without paying a monthly fee. They’re all pretty affordable, though Wal-Mart’s seems to be the best of the bunch right now.

 
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