A basic prepaid Internet plan promises a set amount of minutes for a certain price. But it's important to read the fine print. The amount of minutes listed on the card or quoted in the plan depends on your location. For most U.S. prepaid Internet plans, you only get the full amount of minutes if you're dialing up through a local access number within the contiguous United States and Canada (not Hawaii or Alaska).
Let's say you buy a prepaid Internet card that says 600 minutes for six dollars. Your actual number of minutes -- or how much you're charged per minute -- depends on where you're dialing from and whether you're using a local access or toll-free number:
- Local access numbers in the contiguous U.S. or Canada = 600 minutes (one cent/min)
- Local access numbers in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands = 300 minutes (two cents/min)
- Toll-free from U.S. lower 48, Canada, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands = 100 minutes (six cents/min)
- Local access from international locations = 50 minutes (12 cents/min)
There are also special international plans for frequent travelers, offering better rates for certain international locations.
In addition to individual prepaid Internet plans, you can also sign up for group or corporate plans. Corporate plans offer some advantages for businesses that want to supply employees with dial-up access while away from the office:
- Pay-as-you-go plans with no monthly charges
- Lower domestic and international rates than individual plans
- Web portals for managing accounts, real-time stats on minutes used
- Billing organization by department or other groups
- Flexibility for traveling employees
Some prepaid Internet providers offer what they call prepaid "broadband." They claim to use special servers to speed up download and upload speeds beyond the conventional 56K dial-up modem. These are not, in fact, true prepaid broadband connections, since they work through the same dial-up technology. The providers make no claims to the actual speed of their "broadband" service, other than it's faster than normal dial-up. For more information on how this works, check out How High-Speed Dial-up Works.
WiFi access is another service offered by a few prepaid Internet providers. With prepaid WiFi, you can use some of your minutes surfing wirelessly from select WiFi hotspots. Generally, you pay more per minute for this service.
In Europe, Australia and elsewhere, there's also something called prepaid mobile Internet. Prepaid mobile Internet uses 3G mobile devices like a BlackBerry, iPhone and other smartphones as modems to connect a computer to the Internet. It resembles using a cell phone as a modem, except that these devices can transmit data at a faster rate. Prepaid mobile is advertised as "broadband" since it transmits at rates up to 115 kbps [source: bmobile]. Prepaid mobile Internet typically charges by the kilobyte or megabyte of data transferred.
Now let's talk about what you should look for when choosing a prepaid Internet provider.