Our editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, ZDNet may earn a commission.

Best 4G mobile broadband 2021: Top providers compared

We examined four national providers to find those with the most affordable and reliable internet coverage on the go. ​

Discover the best 4G mobile broadband service providers with our in-depth reviews of four of the most highly rated and common carriers in the country. We looked at AT&T, Cricket, T-Mobile, and Verizon and ranked them on four main criteria: price, speeds, data caps, and customer service. The results reveal several options regardless of what's important to you in your 4G mobile plan and mobile internet service.  

Verizon

Best Data Caps

verizon-phone-pocket.jpg

PROVIDER SCORE: 5/5

Verizon performs strongly across the board, securing our No. 1 spot for 4G mobile broadband service. It offers unlimited data with the option for premium data during high traffic periods, which is ideal for customers requiring large data usage.

Its lowest-ranking category was pricing compared to the competition, although Verizon does have a range of options for different budgets. 

Best For:  Heavy data users

Not For:  Tight budgets

Pricing

4th place – Plans start at $35 per month, but go up to $55 for one line, which is about average compared to its competitors.

Download/Upload Speeds

2nd place – Verizon download speeds start at five Mbps and go up from there. While you won't be able to stream 4K, you'll definitely meet the three Mbps required for regularly streaming.

Data Cap

1st place – The highest plan comes with unlimited data, plus 75GB of premium data gets you faster speeds during peak traffic hours.

Customer Service

2nd place – Verizon ties for second place with a four out of five rating from J.D. Power.

AT&T

Best Variety

at-t-internet.jpg

PROVIDER SCORE: 2/5

With the exception of low 4G plan prices, AT&T ranks at a mediocre level in the other categories. Download speeds start at the cusp of streaming capabilities and while data caps are unlimited, you'll notice a slowing between 50 and 100 GB (depending on your plan).

While providing lower-priced plans can appeal to customers, the potential for slower download speeds and negative customer service rankings may be off-putting for some.

Best For: Budget-friendly options
Not For: Exceptional service

Pricing

2nd place – Plans range from $35 to $50, making AT&T a lowered-priced option for consumers in need of low-budget plans.

Download/Upload Speeds

4th place – 4G uploads go up to a maximum of 7.1 Mbps, although you'll experience faster speeds if you upgrade to the 4G LTE network.

Data Cap

4th place – Unlimited data is great, but users in need of constant and high-performing speeds can find the data caps frustrating.  

Customer Service

4th place – AT&T has one of the lowest customer service scores from J.D. Power, so if you're unhappy with your plan, you may not receive a lot of help in solving your issues.

T-Mobile

Fastest Speeds

screenshot-2019-04-01-at-07-41-29.png

PROVIDER SCORE: 4/5

T-Mobile ranks first in three categories: price, speed, and customer service. The downside is its data caps, which can slow data speeds down after 50 GB of use. As long as you pay attention to how much data you're using, you'll benefit from exceptional speeds for both downloading and uploading.

Best For: Fast speeds
Not For: Constant data use

Pricing

1st place – At a minimum, you can spend just $30 on a T-Mobile plan with 4G. On the high end for a single line, the cost only jumps to $50.

Download/Upload Speeds

1st place – Download speeds start at 9 Mbps and go up to 47 Mbps — enough to stream in 4K.

Data Cap

5th place – T-Mobile users get a max of uninterrupted 50GB of data included in plans, and while it does include hours of streaming video and music, your data prioritization could slow down speeds. 

Customer Service

1st place –  J.D. Power ranks T-Mobile first among full-service carriers for service. If you have an issue with your account, you'll be confident in the resolution process from T-Mobile.

Cricket

Best Flexible Plans

cricket-wireless.jpg

PROVIDER SCORE: 3/5

Cricket's third-place ranking is strong, considering it's the only no-contract carrier on our list. In addition to taking advantage of quality customer service and a high data cap, Cricket customers can sign up for month-to-month plans, which helps customers not interested in long-term plans.

Best For: No-contract data plans
Not For: Fast speeds 

Pricing

3rd place – Cricket plans start at $30 per month and max out at $60 for unlimited data and a mobile hotspot. This range provides cheaper alternatives for unlimited data than other well-known carriers. 

Download/Upload Speeds

5th place – Download speeds range between just one and four Mbps, so you'll only be able to stream video at the upper end of that range, likely outside of peak hours.

Data Cap

2nd place – Cricket offers unlimited data, so even though you may not be able to stream all the time simply based on speed, you at least don't have to worry about your data running out.

Customer Service

1st place – Cricket ties for first in our customer service ranking, and is J.D. Power's top-rated carrier with no contracts. Knowing you have a reputable company providing solid customer service is a plus for new customers.

Guide to Mobile Broadband

Before you pick a provider and a plan, it's imperative to learn the differences between each type of mobile broadband service.

3G vs. 4G

Generations of mobile data technology have progressed successively recently and the generational window may shrink even faster as technology improves. Simply put, the higher the number connection (3G vs. 4G), the faster and stronger you can expect your mobile data connection to be.

As new mobile data networks emerge, older ones become obsolete. Today, 3G networks are rarely used and most new mobiles only provide 4G. Although no longer the fastest iteration, 4G networks are still common nationwide.

LTE

LTE is the acronym for "long-term evolution." It's a version of 4G that is much faster than 3G, particularly when downloading media on your phone. While many networks carry LTE, it's not as fast as pure 4G.

5G

5G mobile broadband is the latest network available — and consequently, the fastest. However, it hasn't made its way into every locale yet. Verizon currently offers 5G in 31 cities in the U.S. and T-Mobile has extensive coverage nationwide, but it's still not comprehensive. 

Consider fiber or cable

For fast data speeds and streaming capabilities at home from wireless internet providers, consider fiber or cable internet. You can still connect your smartphone to your home wi-fi network to use data from your internet plan rather than your mobile plan. While there may be geographic limitations in some rural areas, most places in the U.S. have internet service providers to compare.

How Did We Choose the Best?

 We looked at each carrier's 4G mobile broadband offerings in terms of price, speed, data caps, and J.D. Power customer service rankings. Next, we ranked the carriers in each category and averaged the numbers.

Will my 5G phone work on 4G/3G networks?

 Your 5G phone should automatically select the best signal according to your network, including 4G or 3G networks. 5G-capable phones are not strictly limited to the 5G signal. Your phone will automatically select a network according to what signal is available. If signals overlap, your phone will grasp the best signal and automatically change to the next best signal if the device travels beyond the network area.

How does 5G coverage compare to 4G?

 5G is still in its infancy, although the United States has installed numerous 5G towers over the last year. That being so, the coverage is still just a portion of the 4G coverage that currently exists. Metropolitan areas and their neighboring cities will likely be the first areas targeted, as was the case for 4G when it was first implemented.

Will 5G cost more than 4G?

 At this point, 5G will not cost more than a 4G plan. 5G is simply a more powerful, efficient radio transmission. What this means is more information can be broadcasted through 5G signals without interfering with other broadband signals. Ultimately, however, down the road, your network provider may adjust rates according to their infrastructure or signal quality.