What's the cheapest, easiest way to offer monthly wireless broadband for a granny with a laptop?
April 12, 2012 12:33 AM   Subscribe

My grandma lives in Las Vegas and got her hands on a MacBook Pro, but doesn't have a cell phone, digital cable, or any kind of Internet access. She lives on a very small Social Security payment, but wants to access the web to see her grandkids. What's the most affordable, simplest option currently available for cheap wireless broadband in Vegas (Zip code 89121) with a USB modem?

Clear is too much for her ($35/month for unlimited bandwidth), and NetZero might be the best option (free for 300MB/month, $20 for 1GB/month) but charges an upfront fee for the hardware and doesn't offer the ability to downgrade once you switch to any higher paid plan.

Also, to complicate things, I live in another state and can't be there to configure it for her. So it either needs to be plug-and-play, or include on-site installation.

Do any of you people have experience with DEAD SIMPLE, standalone, single-device wireless broadband for my awesome 80-year-old grandma? Any caveats I should be aware of?
posted by waxpancake to Computers & Internet (10 answers total)
The easiest thing would be to piggyback off of a neighbors wireless. I would put money on one of your grandmas neighbors being willing to take 10 bucks a month or something for Internet access. If my 80 year old neighbor asked, I would just give her the password (or actually set her up a guest network, probably) for free.
posted by rockindata at 4:43 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Call these guys: Nevada Public Computer Centers There's a zipcode search upper left. Someone there will be clued in and motivated to help her.

Otherwise, have her look at her wifi icon and see if there are nearby networks she could use, either with or without permission.
posted by at at 4:49 AM on April 12, 2012

DSL seems to be available at the $19.95/month price point. Like any cheap solution, it probably won't come with on-site installation, but a wired ethernet or usb connection directly to the modem shouldn't require anything more than plugging in color-coded cables and doesn't need any configuration on the computer.

Then if she needs wifi you can buy a wireless router, configure it and ship it to her with instructions to just plug it in where her computer was previously plugged in. If she's already using a laptop, it's probable that you can walk her through connecting to the wireless network over the phone.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:52 AM on April 12, 2012

Is she mobile? I mean, could she possibly get over to a cafe or coffee shop that has wifi, eat a snack, and surf the web for a couple of hours as needed?
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 5:56 AM on April 12, 2012

I don't have personal experience with the product but Virgin Mobile offers a mobile broadband plan that starts at $20/month (for 500MB) that works from a small plug-and-play USB device: Broadband to Go. The device is $80 and appears to be dead simple. I don't know if 3G would be adequate for her needs - for email, definitely, for video chat, maybe not.
posted by mskyle at 6:05 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Does she need wireless, or just Internet access? I mean, plugging the DSL router right into your computer is possible even with a laptop, and I'll bet she's going to use it at a desk, not her livingroom couch...
posted by acm at 6:10 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

These days it's becoming increasingly common for various businesses to offer free WiFi at their locations. I think McDonalds has started doing it, and it's quite common for coffee shops.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:58 AM on April 12, 2012

Would it be possible for her kids or grandkids to come up with the $35/mo? It is not an enormous amount, and it would be just as much to their benefit as hers. That way she doesn't have to try to shlep all over town and figure out WiFi and all that, and she can speak freely from the comfort of her home.
posted by widdershins at 10:34 AM on April 12, 2012

Wired, at home: DSL from her phone company will be the easiest. She'll get a little shiny box (DSL modem) that plugs into a phone jack, then into the Macbook's Ethernet port. Little to no configuration (the phone company can talk her through it if there is any), and when there's a problem, "unplug the shiny box from the wall, wait 5 minutes, then plug it all back in again" is pretty simple troubleshooting. It will probably be the cheapest as well - they'll just add about $20/mo to her phone bill (it won't vary with usage, so you could just start sending a $20 check to her phone company to subsidize her bill if you want)

Wireless, at home: 1) ask a neighbor, they'll probably let her piggyback for a plate of brownies every month. 2) DSL as above, but pay an extra $5/mo for a phone company provided/serviced DSL modem that is also a wireless router; same phone company setup assistance, unplug/wait/replug to troubleshoot.

Wireless, everywhere: The VirginMobileBroadbandToGo devices come in two form factors, a USB stick and a wireless hub a little smaller than an iPhone. You buy the device outright ($75-100) and then it's pay-as-you-go or automatic re-up - this way you can buy it, start the account under your name/creditcard, and send it to her prepaid. CAVEAT: these devices work over the same 3G wireless data network used for Sprint phones. If where she is has bad or nonexistent Sprint 3G data coverage, then it won't work.

Wireless, some places: Public Library, Starbucks, hotel lobbies, etc. Many public places have free public WiFi. Might be nicer to be out and about and online instead of at home behind the computer all the time. Pro: nice strangers will help her when she has problems. Con: mean strangers might steal her Macbook when she goes to the bathroom.
posted by bartleby at 4:54 PM on April 12, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody! We ended up settling on NetZero, which offers a free wireless plan using a USB stick.
posted by waxpancake at 2:19 PM on April 30, 2012

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