What is mobile broadband?
Mobile broadband lets you connect to the internet using mobile phone signal.
It offers portable web access on the move so you can get online on your laptop, tablet or mobile wherever you are, provided there is a 3G or 4G connection available.
It is relatively cheap compared to most standard broadband packages and is more flexible, with most providers offering short term contracts and a number of package options.
3G is the third generation of mobile technology which lets users connect to mobile broadband. It is the most widely available form of mobile internet in the UK.
4G is the fourth generation of mobile broadband and offers speeds up to five times faster than 3G, but availability is limited.
Why should you get mobile broadband?
There are a number of advantages:
More flexibility: Mobile broadband allows you to access the internet anywhere with a mobile signal, giving you more freedom to browse the web on the move.
Easier to set up: It is quicker to set up than standard home packages which often take weeks to install. Once you have your mobile broadband device and have topped up your data, you can just plug in and go.
Cost: Compared to standard broadband packages, it is relatively cheap. You avoid the high costs of line rental and superfast connectivity, and flexible contracts can run month-to-month or on a pay as you go basis.
Are there any drawbacks?
Yes, while mobile broadband can be cheaper, there are a few things to be aware of:
Availability: Broadband access will rely on the strength of mobile phone signal in your area so if you have poor reception or 4G is unavailable, your connectivity will suffer. Try Ofcom's mobile coverage checker to check mobile signal in your area before you commit to a mobile broadband package.
Speed: This will vary and depends largely on your location and how many other people in the area use the service at any one time. You can check average speeds in your area on the Broadband.co.uk website.
Data limits: Most mobile broadband data limits are considerably lower than standard broadband, and the higher limits come at a much higher cost. If you use services like Netflix or Skype, or download large files, you could end up paying a lot for your data.
Battery drain: 3G and 4G internet will drain the battery life of your laptop or tablet much faster than a standard WiFi connection.
How can you get mobile broadband?
Getting connected with mobile is usually quicker and easier than setting up home broadband but there are a few things you will need to do before you start:
Check availability in your area
Buy a broadband device
Register with a mobile broadband supplier
Where can you get mobile broadband?
Mobile broadband availability depends on the strength of signal in your area.
Less populated areas can sometimes have poor or no signal at all, so check with your supplier before you buy to make sure you have access to good reception.
Yes, but some suppliers may apply hefty roaming charges or restrict your access outside the UK.
If you need to use the internet abroad, it could be cheaper to take a pre-paid SIM to ensure you stay within your data allowance and avoid extra charges.
How fast is mobile broadband?
You can expect it to be slower than standard home broadband, with reception in your area and the individual supplier also affecting your speed.
You should also keep in mind that the speed advertised by your provider may not be the speed you actually receive.
You also need to consider your internet usage requirements. For example, if you spend a lot of time gaming or streaming video, it is unlikely that mobile broadband will offer the speed you require.
What mobile broadband device should you get?
There are three main types of mobile broadband device for you to choose from:
The most popular mobile broadband device, USB dongles are typically used for providing laptops with an internet connection on the move.
Your laptop may already come with a dongle fitted but you can also buy them from as little as £15 from a mobile broadband provider.
You just need to plug your dongle into the USB port on your laptop and activate your data with your network provider. You can pay monthly for your data or top it up as you need it.
A SIM only internet plan lets you connect to the internet via your tablet or iPad.
Just like a mobile phone contract, a broadband SIM can be paid for on a monthly or pay as you go basis.
This gives you the flexibility to switch providers or swap the SIM between multiple devices.
Wireless mobile broadband (MiFi)
MiFi is good if you are looking to replace your home broadband as you can connect several devices at the same time, but it is usually more expensive than a dongle or SIM.
A MiFi device creates a secure wireless hotspot which allows multiple wireless devices to share the same connection. This process is called tethering.
Most smartphones with a 4G connection can be used as a hotspot but you should check with your network provider for tethering restrictions as you could be charged for exceeding your limit.
Choosing the right supplier
Before you get online you need to register with a mobile broadband provider.
Depending on the network coverage in your area, you may have the option of 4G internet which offers faster speed and improved connectivity.
What are your data limits?
Your data limits will be based on how frequently you access the internet and what you use it for.
It is usually measured in gigabytes (GB) and the amount you opt for will be determined by your browsing habits.
Data limits will vary between suppliers but you are unlikely to find unlimited data in a mobile broadband deal. Typically, you can expect data to be capped at 1 GB to 5 GB, although you should check this with your network provider.
Many suppliers will provide an app for tracking your data usage to make sure you stay within your limit.
Most suppliers offer top-up options or charge you an additional amount during your next billing cycle if you are on a pay monthly contract.
You will usually be charged at a higher rate for each additional GB you use, so your cheapest option is to top up your allowance before you reach your limit.
If you pay as you go for your mobile broadband, your service will simply stop when you have reached your data limit and you will have to add more credit.
Extra data will come at an added cost but you will always have the flexibility to extend your allowance.
Mobile broadband is ideal if your internet usage is low. It is also a good option if you are a student, as it tends to be cheaper than standard broadband.
4G is becoming more common and mobile broadband deals are always changing, so the speed and data limits available to you will constantly improve.
Take a look at our comparison table for a summary of the mobile broadband options currently available.