Mobile Broadband Buyers Guide
We know from feedback from consumers how daunting it can be when looking to choose a mobile broadband deal. The marketplace is filled with seemingly endless variations of usage, headline speeds and bundled hardware, so it can be hard to decide which is the right choice for you.
How does it work?
Mobile broadband uses the mobile phone network to connect you to the Internet.
This is made possible by technologies called High Speed Downlink Packet Access or HSDPA, which is the basis of 3G services, and LTE or Long Term Evolution, which is used to achieve 4G speeds.
On a standard deal, you will be provided with a special USB modem, often described as a 'Dongle' or 'Stick', which plugs into your computer to allow you to connect. You don't need to use your mobile phone. Services tend to be sold as 'always on' meaning that you don't pay for the amount of time you're connected, but if you exceed your data usage allowance you may pay for the amount of data you use. The great advantage is that you don't need a landline, and you aren't tied to one location, so you can use your connection wherever there's reception!
No Need For A Landline
For many, the biggest drawback with traditional broadband is that in most cases it forces you to have a landline even if you don't require a phone line for any other use.
With more and more people nowadays either using mobile phones rather than landlines it can make sense to make your broadband mobile rather than fixed. If you're a light user who mostly just emails, IMs and browses the web, switching to mobile-only could save you money in the long run.
Even if you're a heavy home broadband user, a mobile service can be an excellent supplement to keep you online when you're working away from home, and as a backup should you experience outages on your fixed line service.
Mobile Broadband Providers
Not surprisingly mobile broadband is provided by the mobile phone networks (and resellers such as Virgin Media). Here is a brief rundown of each supplier:
- 3 Mobile - 3 Mobile have very much taken the lead when it comes to 3G in the UK. They offer all types of deals from Pay as You Go to free laptop deals. 3 Mobile provide the widest range of deals currently on the market including the largest data allowances.
- EE - Created by the merging of Orange and T-Mobile's networks, EE is currently the market leader for 4G coverage having had almost a year's head start over other networks.
- giffgaff - giffgaff offer some of the cheapest SIM-free 3G broadband, all with no contract and total flexibility. They're a virtual network using O2's cell towers.
- O2 - O2 have a range of deals to suit all types of users, along with their 30 day Happiness Guarantee they are worth looking at.
- Orange and T-Mobile - Although now part of the EE network, Orange and T-Mobile still offer 3G-only deals under their own brands.
- Vodafone - The early Vodafone mobile broadband deals were aimed squarely at the business market which is still Vodafone's string point. A range of consumer mobile broadband deals have now been launched including tablet offers.
- Virgin Mobile - Virgin Mobile are a virtual network using EE's cell towers, offering discounts to Virgin Media customers.
You can also view all mobile broadband providers and read mobile broadband providers reviews.
How Much Does It Cost?
Surprisingly it probably costs less than you think, especially when you consider that you don't have to fork out for line rental as well (which is a common 'hidden cost' with most fixed line broadband).
Deals start from as little as £5 per month, and go up to £40 per month for the highest usage levels or for bundled hardware.
There are 4 types of deal:
- Contract Mobile broadband - Here you sign up for a fixed period of time (usually between 12 and 24 months) and you receive a free dongle (or portable hotspot) and a certain amount of data usage inclusive per month (between 1GB and 15GB depending on the package). If you use more than your standard data allowance during a month then you pay extra on top for the additional data. Your mobile network will provide you with a secure webpage with your usage amounts so you can keep an eye on your usage levels. Prices vary depending on factors such as the length of contract and the amount of inclusive data per month.
- Pay As You Go Mobile broadband - Pay as you go broadband works much as with PAYG mobile phones, you buy a dongle (portable hotspot or SIM) and then when you want to use it you buy top ups. Rather than buying minutes you buy gigabytes (although occasionally you may pay to activate the service for a day, week or month, with a fixed usage allowance for the activation period). You can buy top ups either online or at a shop that sells mobile phone top ups. You can buy top ups in various price ranges, the more you spend the more usage you get. Prices for a 1GB top start around £7.50 or £10 depending on your network. Be aware that top ups can often expire if they're not used within a certain time limit.
- Mobile Broadband Starter Kits - These are similar to PAYG deals but they come with a certain amount of data included and an increased time limit to use the data before it expires. Starter kits are an excellent present to give someone who needs to get connected but doesn't want a fixed contract. You can effectively pay for a whole year, or few months upfront. Prices start from around £80.
- Bundled Tablets and Laptops - If you're already planning to buy a tablet or laptop and want to take out a mobile broadband contract (usually between 18 and 24 months in duration), you can sign up for both at once and pay less upfront because your contract subsidises the price of the hardware. Sometime the upfront cost can even be free! Because of this, contracts typically cost between £30 and £45 per month depending upon the specification of the included tablet and the amount of inclusive data per month.
Installation is usually a doddle, you simply plug the supplied dongle into a spare USB port on your Windows or Mac computer, it automatically sets itself up, and you'll be online in no time.
It really is that simple. In the unusual event that it doesn't work first time then each supplier has technical support just a phone call away who will be able to ensure that activation goes smoothly.
Mobile Broadband Coverage
Technically mobile data will work anywhere there is a mobile phone signal, however if an area has a weak signal or the aerials have not been upgraded to the 3G or higher standard, then the speeds can suffer significantly, being little faster than the old dial-up speeds.
In urban areas you stand a very good chance of getting excellent download speeds, in other areas it's worth checking individual suppliers coverage maps. Keep in mind that some areas only have good coverage outdoors, rather than within buildings. The good news is that more and more areas are being upgraded to enable the fastest speeds.
If you're unsure of whether coverage will be acceptable everywhere you need it, all suppliers allow their contracts to be ended in the first 7 days (some conditions may apply, see provider sites for details) and some, such as O2 and Vodafone, offer a no quibbles returns policy for the first 30 days of your contract.
As with many fixed line broadband deals, mobile deals have a monthly usage allowance with a limit to the amount of data you can download.
If you have pay as you go mobile broadband then you have nothing to fear, as when you have used up all your data you won't be allowed to download any more data till you have purchased a new top-up.
If you're on a contract, once you've exceeded your monthly inclusive data allowance, you'll likely be charged for any extra data you use which gets added to your monthly bill. Be wary of this as some provider can charge large by the megabyte meaning you can quickly accumulate a large bull. However your network should provide you with a secure account webpage where you can keep an eye on the amount of data you are downloading so you can watch your use, and you should receive a warning when you go over your allowance.
Who Is Mobile Broadband Good For?
Just about anyone can find mobile broadband useful, but here are some of the scenarios where mobile broadband is the perfect solution:
- Regular travellers - if you're often out and about with your laptop or tablet and want to stay online when there's no Wi-Fi available, a dongle, personal hotspot or SIM can keep you online wherever there's mobile reception.
- Homes without a landline - why get a telephone line when you don't need it? Mobile broadband can be the perfect solution for mobile-only households with light Internet usage.
- People in short term lets - don't want to tie yourself into long term fixed line contracts or don't want the hassle of migrating your broadband service between landlines every time you move? Simply get a mobile connection you can take with you when you leave.
- Business users - being out of touch means wasted time and missed opportunities, a mobile broadband connection means whenever you are away from the office you can stay in touch and keep connected - you can even connect from the train!
- Students - online access is invaluable to every student, with a mobile Internet connection your laptop or tablet can stay online at home, in digs, in Lectures or even the student union bar!
- Motor Homes - if like many people you spend much of your time exploring home and abroad in a motor home then a mobile connection could be a great way of staying in touch and planning your next destination, especially inside the EU.
- Backup connection - if you prefer a fixed line connection for most of your usage, a mobile dongle can be a great backup in case your normal supply fails (and we know that can happen a lot!) to keep you online.
More and more people are taking advantage of mobile broadband to keep connected when they are abroad, it usually works just as easily in other countries as it does in the UK.
However you have to watch out for increased charges when you are overseas as with many suppliers this kind of use is not included in your monthly allowance and additional roaming charges can apply. See each individual provider for details about using your service abroad and whether there are add ons available to make overseas use more affordable. Outside of the EU roaming charges can be extremely steep, so be sure to be certain of how much you'll pay before you travel. Charges that are per megabyte can add up very quickly as these days the average webpage is larger than a megabyte, especially when you're browsing on a laptop or desktop computer with full screen size.
Mobile broadband is particularly being adopted by the motor home community who have found that it provides the perfect way to keep in touch with family back home and research the next destination on their trips. Look for services with inclusive international WiFi for the most cost effective solution.
The next generation of mobile broadband technology has begun to roll out offering speeds of up to 40Mb, with these are likely to increase in the future.
EE currently has by far the most areas covered by their 4G service, as they had an entire year's head start on setting up its network before any others were allowed to bid on the 4G spectrum. Other networks have 4G activated in a limited number of towns and cities, but coverage tends to become very patchy outside of city centres, especially if you're connecting from inside a building. Luckily 4G Ready devices will automatically switch back to 3G and even 2G services when they can't can't make a 4G connection.
Some networks don't yet support speeds faster than 3G, or sell some products that won't support 4G speeds even when they're available, so make sure your deal and device say they're '4G Ready'. The Three network offers 4G support automatically on all its mobile broadband deals and for no extra cost, but make sure that you've purchased a 4G Ready device or you'll still be unable to enjoy 4G services when they're available unless you pay for a new dongle, personal hotspot or tablet.
Mobile broadband (like most technologies) is full of terms that to the uninitiated make no sense whatsoever. Here's a complete glossary to help you out:
- 2G - Second Generation mobile network, provides the digital mobile phone network we use for calls and texts and also slow GPRS data connections.
- 3G - Third Generation mobile network provides for a good data transfer rate allowing for video calls or mobile broadband connections which typically connect at around 2Mb in real world use.
- 4G - Fourth Generation mobile network with speeds of up to 40Mb and potentially in the future as high as 1Gb.
- Dongle - A modem to connect to the mobile network and provide and Internet connection, usually in USB stick form, but sometimes also on a short USB cable.
- Stick - The same as a USB dongle, but without the variations in shape and connectivity. Looks like an oversized USB flash drive but works as a modem.
- SIM - Subscriber Identity Module, the small card and chip that you insert into your mobile phone, USB dongle, pocket hotspot, tablet or laptop to allow it to connect to the mobile network. This securely stores your mobile subscriber identity, which is how your provider identifies you and knows what service to provide. SIMs currently come in three sizes; mini, micro and nano, depending on the sort of device you're using. Many providers sell SIM-only products, meaning you can use your own device, such as a tablet, and avoid paying extra for bundled hardware.
- Personal Hotspot - Also known as a pocket hotspot, Mi-Fi, pocket Wi-Fi or 'Wireless Pointer'. This is a device that connects to the mobile networks to make a high speed Internet connection, then rather than supplying this to one device via a USB port, it instead providers a wireless network that several devices can connect to at once.
- Datacard - a type of mobile broadband modem that can only work with laptops with PCMIA expansion slots. These days this is the rarest kind of modem and is only really sold to business users.
- GPRS - General Packet Radio Service. A type of mobile data standard available on a 2G connection offering speeds closer to that of dial-up than broadband.
- EDGE - Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution, also known as EGPRS or Enhanced GPRS, the fastest 2G data connection standard, often offered as a fallback for 3G services outside of coverage areas.
- HSPA - High Speed Packet Access. The protocol used by 3G data, offering speeds faster than EDGE.
- HSDPA - High Speed Downlink Packet Access. Another standard, currently the one most often in use with most 3G deals with a theoretical speed of 7.2Mb
- HSUPA - High Speed Uplink Packet Access. A standard that allows for fast mobile broadband uplink connections.
- DC-HSPA - Dual Channel High Speed Packet Access. A method for getting more speed out of 3G deals by combining two connections into one faster datastream.
- DC-HSPA+ - An enhanced version of DC-HSPA, designed to get the fastest possible speeds from 3G spectrum. This is used by Three to offer 4G-equivalent speeds on selected hardware.
- LTE - Long Term Evolution. Related to 4G technology, LTE is at the forefront of the next generation mobile broadband networks offering speeds of up to 40Mb on UK networks.
Other Types Of Deals
You've reached the end of our mobile broadband buyers guide. Why don't you look for some of the best deals available?