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Mobile broadband explained

What is mobile broadband?

For most people, their home broadband connection is delivered via either a copper or fibre-optic underground cable that connects their home directly with a local exchange. But this is not the only way in which households can get online.

Mobile broadband delivers internet connectivity to your home over a wireless network, in much the same way as you would access data on your smartphone when you're out and about. When you sign up to these deals, you'll get a mobile broadband SIM; however, there are a few ways in which you can use this.

  • Inbuilt data SIMs: Many of today's laptops and tablets come with a slot for a data SIM card. If you've got a computer with this capability, all you need to do is buy a dedicated data SIM and pop it in. These are just like the ones for your phone except they're focused on mobile broadband only, so the packages on offer only provide data, with no need to pay for calls or texts you won't or can't use.
  • USB Dongles: If your laptop doesn't have a slot for a SIM card, you don't have to miss out. Instead, you can opt for a dongle that can be fitted with such a card, then plugged into any free USB port on your device, so even a desktop PC can access mobile broadband. These do the same job as an inbuilt SIM and are perfect if you want to browse the internet on any older computer and take your connection with you wherever you go.
  • Mobile Wi-Fi hotspots: What if you want to access mobile broadband services on multiple devices around the home? If this is the case, you can pick up a mobile Wi-Fi, or MiFi, router. These work just like the standard routers you get with fixed broadband, except instead of plugging into a cable in the wall, they come with a data SIM slot that can pick up a mobile signal and disperse it throughout your home, allowing you to hook up any Wi-Fi-enabled device to your mobile broadband network.

Our best mobile broadband deals on Uswitch.com in December 2021

PackageBroadband speedContract length
Three: 5G Hub - 24 months100Mb average*24 months
Three: 4G Hub14Mb average*12 months
Three: 5G Hub100Mb average*12 months
Vodafone R219 Mobile Wi-Fi Unlimited Max - 12 months150Mb average*12 months
Vodafone R219 Mobile Wi-Fi hotspot Unlimited Max - 1 month150Mb average*1 month
Three: 5G Hub with Nest Hub100Mb average*12 months
Three: 4G Hub - 24 months14Mb average*24 months
Three: 5G Hub with Nest Audio100Mb average*12 months
Vodafone R219 Mobile Wi-Fi Unlimited - 12 months10Mb average*12 months
Vodafone R219 Mobile Wi-Fi Unlimited - 1 month10Mb average*1 month
More broadband deals

Why choose a mobile broadband deal?

There are a number of reasons to opt for a mobile broadband deal, but one of its biggest advantages may be for users in more remote parts of the UK, where fixed-line access is limited.

Many rural areas still don't have access to fast fibre broadband, and as homes may be long distances from the nearest exchange, copper ADSL speeds are likely to be very slow. However, if these locations are covered by 4G mobile networks, mobile broadband can offer faster and more reliable speeds than an ADSL alternative.

Another reason for opting for mobile broadband is the flexibility it offers. If you have a data SIM-enabled laptop, or choose a USB dongle, you can take your internet connection anywhere you can find a mobile signal. You won't have to worry about poor Wi-Fi not reaching the bottom of the garden, or rely on public Wi-Fi hotspots if you're out and about.

However, there are a couple of things to bear in mind if you're considering a mobile broadband deal. Firstly, they won't be available everywhere, so you'll need to check what signals are available at your home first. If you already struggle to get a signal on your smartphone to make calls when at home, you're unlikely to be able to get mobile broadband.

Also, mobile broadband deals often contain some differences from fixed-line contracts. For instance, while almost every fixed-line deal on offer in the UK now comes with unlimited downloads, usage limits are still commonplace on many mobile broadband offerings, though there are some unlimited services available. They are also less able to offer guaranteed speeds and may come with a price premium.

How does mobile broadband work?

Mobile broadband works by accessing the same nationwide signals that serve mobile phones, usually running off one of the four networks provided by the UK's four large mobile operators: O2, EE, Vodafone and Three.

It uses these networks' 3G and 4G data services to send and receive information. As this is delivered wirelessly, there are a few differences from regular broadband.

For starters, the speeds you get will depend largely on where you are. If your home is covered by a fast 4G network, you could enjoy faster speeds than fixed-line connections, with the UK's average 4G speed being between 15Mbps and 30Mbps, depending on the network operator and location. If you can only access the older 3G network, however, this is likely to be much slower.

Fortunately, there will also be a new standard to consider in the coming months and years: 5G mobile broadband. As the name suggests, this is the next step up from 4G and promises a huge leap forward in performance, with much faster speeds and higher bandwidth that will allow many more devices to connect at once.

This is still brand new in the UK, with the first network only having gone live in June, but it's expected to expand rapidly in the coming years, and there are suggestions that it could be a viable replacement for even fibre-optic fixed broadband services once fully up and running.

What is 5G mobile broadband?

Parts of the UK will soon have access to 5G mobile broadband. This type of connection will use new 5G networks to connect via a data-only SIM — which is the same way mobile broadband connections work now.

The difference between 4G and 5G mobile broadband comes down to the speeds offered. Although it’s hard to predict 5G mobile broadband speeds, early reports indicate that the maximum download speed would be in excess of 500Mbps — which is higher than superfast fixed line connections can offer.

Of course, 5G is still a new technology that’s only just starting to roll out, so speeds will vary widely across areas and networks.

Which broadband companies provide mobile broadband?

As noted above, mobile broadband services run off the same data networks as mobile phone signals, so all the big operators offer mobile broadband deals. Some of the biggest names include:

  • O2
  • Vodafone Mobile Broadband
  • Three
  • EE/BT Mobile Broadband

It's important to remember that unlike most regular broadband deals, these networks will not necessarily overlap, so you'll need to check whether your preferred provider's signal will reach your home.

Many of these offer both one-month rolling contracts or longer 12- or 24-month terms. There are also a choice of data plans available, ranging from around 15GB usage per month to fully unlimited packages. It therefore pays to compare mobile broadband deals to ensure you're selecting the right option for your needs.

Do I need mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband is highly useful if you live in an area that's poorly-served by wired options. If you can't get fibre broadband at your home, mobile technology can provide a faster alternative to standard broadband. If you're on the move frequently, it can also be useful to take your broadband connection with you.

How does mobile broadband work?

Mobile broadband delivers internet services to your home using the same 4G data networks you connect to on a smartphone, so as long as you have a strong mobile signal, you can access mobile broadband. There are a few ways you can access this, such as mobile broadband routers, USB dongle or a laptop or tablet with an in-built SIM card slot.

Can I get 5G mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband offers that use ultrafast 5G networks are available in some locations, but coverage is limited. 5G mobile networks are still very new in the UK, with the first services going live in summer 2019. Rollouts are gathering pace, but such services are currently restricted to major cities and may come with usage limits.

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