Monday, April 2, 2012

Zoom 4596 3G Mobile Broadband Modem--Yes, It Works with AT&T GoPhone Service

Folks -- sorry.  As of 4-22-12, AT&T changed their GoPhone plans.  The only way you can get data on a smartphone now is by buying a $25 or $50 package each month.  This means that I can no longer recommend AT&T's GoPhone service as a good, inexpensive choice for someone needing minimal data and voice. 

Zoom makes several models of USB modems.  These modems accept a SIM card from a cellular data provider like T-Mobile or AT&T.   You then plug them into the USB port of your laptop to get on the internet.  You can then get your email and surf the internet anywhere that you get a cell phone signal.

The speeds can range from slow to surprisingly fast, depending on the network's coverage where you are.  For instance, getting data using one of these modems on the fringes of a network (like Monterey, California, where I live) can be both sporadic and slow; but if I am traveling and in the center of a network, the speed for a 3G modem can be up to 7.2 Mbps, which is as fast as the average broadband speed over a DSL or cable connection.  The great thing about Zoom modems is that they are not locked to a specific cellular data provider.  

I’ve previously used a USB modem from Virgin Mobile, and it worked well.  I describe my experience with Virgin Mobile's modem in a separate blog entry.  I’ve had the VM modem for over a year, and since I bought this modem from Walmart, I could buy a (special Walmart) one-month data plan for $20, which would give me up to 1 Gb of data good for 30 days (regular VM customer only get 500 Mb of data for $20, which also expire after 30 days).  I found that I use 1Gb of data in about 2-3 weeks with typical use of the internet -- emails and web surfing, NO streaming videos.  If I tried hard to use the modem only for emails and only the most important internet tasks, then I could make the 1Gb of data last an entire month easily. 

My problem with the Virgin Mobile data plan is twofold: both personal and impersonal.  First, Virgin Mobile’s computers have decided that I am a bad customer.  I tried to go on their website to start up a data plan a few months ago, and the Virgin Mobile website kicked me out every time I entered one of my credit cards.  This was an ironic situation – I had bought a VM modem for $70 and used it a few times, paying $20 each time for a month's worth of data.  Now Virgin Mobile had somehow decided that I was a bad customer, and I could not pay them to use the modem that I had bought from them!  I solved the problem by using my wife’s credit card, but I was not happy and  decided to try to find another data service provider.  I also don’t need a full month’s usage of a data modem.  Typically, I am at a location only 2-3 days per month where I don’t have easy internet access and need to use a data modem.  Paying $20 for just those few days is a waste. 

I’ve therefore been wondering if the Zoom USB modems, which are touted as “works geat with AT&T 3G…no long-term service commitment required” would work with an AT&T GoPhone SIM card.  In short, yes – using a GoPhone SIM card with a Zoom model 4596 data modem does work, and it works easily and quickly.  I bought this modem for $63 at Amazon. 

I researched the various types of Zoom USB modems out there.  Zoom makes at least three USB modems that should work with AT&T or T-Mobile, both of whom are GSM providers.  Here’s what the website says:

Zoom 4596 3G Mobile Broadband Modem :
The Model 4596 lets you use AT&T 3G service without making an expensive long-term commitment. In the U.S., sign up for service wherever AT&T mobile broadband is sold. A voice service or another account with AT&T is not required. The modem is activated by plugging in a standard SIM card from AT&T or another GSM service provider. Unlike other modems, the Model 4596 is not locked to a specific service provider and can use a data SIM from services around the world. A change to the service provider is accomplished by simply sliding out one provider's SIM and replacing it with another provider's SIM. It takes only seconds and maximizes flexibility in using data plans. 

There are two other Zoom models that might work, but the 4596 was touted on the package as specifically working with AT&T.  AT&T does offer their own USB modems, and I have a feeling that they would not allow you to use their GoPhone service with USB data modems, only for smartphones like Android.  I took a SIM card from a smartphone to try this out. I have a feeling that AT&T would not approve this kind of usage with their GoPhone service, so I am not going to tell them, nor did I go into a store with this modem in my hand asking them about it.  I was gratified to put my GoPhone SIM in the Zoom modem and see that it worked just fine.

The Zoom 4595 seems to be the same as the 4596, but the 4596 modem is specifically tailored for AT&T.  The Model 4597 also says that it is for T-Mobile and AT&T, but has terrible reviews on Amazon. 

With the Zoom modem and AT&T GoPhone service, I can just put in $5 or $15 at a time, and get 10 or 100Mb of service.  I’ve topped off my SIM card with $25 worth of data, which gives me 500Mb of data.  I just need to top this off every month with a $5 purchase, and the unused data will roll over.  If I only use 100Mb of data every month (about one weekend’s use per month), then this $25 and 500Mb can last five months, with an additional infusion of $5 each month to roll over the remaining, unused data.  The total for five months would be about $45.  Using Virgin Mobile’s plan, which has no rollover minutes, would cost $100. 
With this setup, I really am just paying as I go, with just a low $5 to roll over my unused data from month to month. 

All of these modems require that you use their software on your laptop to connect the modem to the internet.  I had trouble with the Virgin Mobile modem initially when having to use their software to connect the modem to the internet. 

I bought a Cradlepoint PHS-300 wifi hotspot, and this has solved the problem.  I just plug in a USB modem into this little box, and it creates a wifi hotspot instantly.  Both my Virgin Mobile and AT&T USB modems work with this great little device, and I don’t have to deal with complicated modem drivers on my laptop anymore.  Any of my wifi devices can then hook up to the network, such as my ipad.  Awesome, simple to use, fast.