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What is mobile broadband?

3G and 4G mobile broadband is provided to customers through mobile phone signals. As with mobile phones, the strength of the signal determines the quality of the connection.

Mobile broadband can be accessed with a number of devices, including mobile phones, mobile dongles, MiFi units and data cards. Dongles are USB-compatible and plug into the laptop, PC or device.

Mobile dongles are essentially portable modems and are also referred to as mobile USB sticks and USB modems.

For more information on mobile broadband dongles, check out our mobile broadband dongle guide page.

It's common nowadays for dongles to come in 3G and 4G speeds. The main difference between older 3G mobile broadband and 4G mobile broadband is speed: Choose 4G and you can expect a connection that's up to five times faster than the UK 3G average.

Mobile broadband providers

You can get great mobile broadband deals from these providers:

Who is it for?

Students, commuters and travellers can all benefit massively from a mobile broadband connection. But so can anyone else looking to access the internet outside their home or office (although mobile broadband can be used there, too).

mobile broadband

Advantages of mobile broadband:

  • Competitive pricing that's usually cheaper than home broadband, even for 4G speeds, which are comparable to some home connections.
  • Convenience to use the internet on the bus, train, park or coffee shop.
  • You don't have to be plugged into an ethernet connection or even be in range of a hotspot because this technology provides you with your very own portable modem. The modem plugs directly into one of the USB ports of your laptop and it doesn't require any outlets, which makes for hassle-free internet access.
  • Mobile modems are small and discreet, meaning you can pop them in your laptop bag, handbag or even your pocket and be ready to connect wherever you go.
  • The speeds of 4G mean that mobile broadband is becoming an ever more viable alternative to fixed-line, home broadband.

Disadvantages of mobile broadband:

  • You are at the mercy of a mobile phone signal. Anywhere your smartphone has bad reception, your mobile broadband likely will, too.
  • Limited download allowances make this type of broadband less attractive for heavy users.
  • Depending upon the provider and package, mobile broadband can have slower speeds than some home broadband packages.

How it works

Mobile broadband uses 3G or 4G services. These connections are made possible by two complimentary technologies: HSDPA and HSUPA (high speed download and upload packet access, respectively).

In theory, these technologies enable 3G mobile broadband users to access download speeds up to 21Mbps and upload speeds up to 1.76Mbps. In practice, however, such speeds are only available in certain areas of cities and selected UK airports. It is likely that access to these speeds will become more widespread in the future, however.

4G is faster, but because it's delivered the same way as 3G, the speed it offers is also massively affected by location.

Mobile broadband and download allowances

Download-savvy users will have noted that mobile broadband deals generally have quite restrictive download limits. This is for two main reasons:

  • High costs: Transferring data across 3G and 4G networks is more expensive than across ADSL or cable (the technologies used in home broadband).
  • System overload: Providers are concerned that if all users were on unlimited download limits, the system would be overwhelmed very quickly, causing lost connections and slow service across the entire mobile network.

If you're likely to only use mobile broadband occasionally or primarily for basic tasks (like checking e-mails or browsing Facebook) then a lower monthly data limit — one to three gigs — should be fine. Heavy downloaders should look most closely at the allowance tab and sort packages by this criteria to avoid incurring extra costs.

Compare mobile broadband packages and learn more about mobile broadband now.