What is Mobile Broadband?

What is Mobile Broadband?

Mobile broadband is a newer addition to the broadband market, only arriving in recent years following the sale of spectrum to mobile network companies. Mobile broadband users receive a broadband connection over the mobile phone networks via 3G and 4G technologies, removing the requirement for a fixed broadband connection or a phone line.

How does Mobile Broadband work?

Mobile broadband is different from standard fixed-line broadband because it works via the mobile phone networks. Whereas fixed lines run on copper wires or fibre-optic cables, mobile broadband is a wireless solution. It is also different from WiFi because you can access broadband from anywhere that provides mobile coverage, which is the vast majority of the country.

Mobile broadband relies on 3G and 4G technologies. For you to access mobile broadband, you must purchase a dongle or USB stick from an ISP (Internet Service Provider). You plug this into your PC or laptop and the software automatically downloads, providing you with high-speed broadband immediately. You will then either be able to top up your download limit or pay for a monthly contract (more of which later).

What is 3G?

3G is the third generation of mobile phone standards and technology, superseding 2G. It is based on the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) family of standards under the International Mobile Telecommunications programme, IMT-2000.

3G technologies enable network operators to offer users a wider range of more advanced services while achieving greater network capacity through improved spectral efficiency. Services include wide-area wireless voice telephony, video calls, and broadband wireless data, all in a mobile environment. Additional features also include HSPA data transmission capabilities able to deliver speeds up to 14.4Mbit/s on the downlink and 5.8Mbit/s on the uplink.

What is 4G?

4G is the fourth generation of mobile phone technology and follows on from 2G and 3G.

2G technology was suitable for making calls and sending text messages while 3G makes it possible to access the internet more effectively through your mobile phone.

4G services should make it much quicker to surf the web on your mobile, tablets and laptops - speeds will be nearer to what you currently experience with home broadband.

Because of this, 4G is ideally suited for services which demand more capacity like video streaming, mapping and social networking sites.

For the typical user, download speeds of initial 4G networks could be around 5-7 times those for existing 3G networks.

This means a music album taking 20 minutes to download on a 3G phone and just over 3 minutes on 4G. This is based on existing 3G speeds being 1Mbit/s on average and 4G speed being 6Mbit/s (average of 5 and 7 times faster).

Who uses Mobile Broadband?

Mobile broadband is ideal for anyone on the go who needs to stay connected to the internet but doesn’t always have access to a fixed line. This has made business people and students two of the biggest user groups, and it has also been successful with people living in short-term rental accommodation, as it removes the need to pay for a phone line.

On top of that, mobile broadband is increasingly being used as a backup internet connection for people who already have a regular fixed-line connection as it provides extra security should the connection fail.


Mobile broadband has excellent coverage across the UK, with 99% of the country connected. However, the speed of the connection varies depending on the quality of the mobile phone reception. Overall, better reception and speeds are available in towns and cities.

Connection Devices

Dongles are the most common connection devices. These are small devices that plug straight into the USB socket on your computer. They are small and portable and have even become fashion accessories for some people. Other than that you could use a USB modem, which is smaller than a dongle but works in the same way. The other less-common alternative is a mobile data card, which can only be used with laptops with ‘plug and go’ software.

Data Allowances

With mobile broadband you are given a data allowance. Every time you browse the internet, send an e-mail or watch a video on YouTube you are using up data, and you will have a limit of how much data you can download in a month.

The data allowances available usually range from 1Gb to 15Gb. 1Gb will provide up to 30 hours of surfing, and 5Gb will allow up to 150 hours. Sometimes you will see mobile broadband deals with an ‘unlimited’ data allowance. However, these are subject to a ‘fair usage policy’, and there will always be a limit.

If you are on a contract and you go over your data allowance, you will be charged – often quite steeply – for each Gb of extra data. These charges range from nothing (T-Mobile) to £204 (O2). This may seem steep, but it is to prevent people taking advantage of the networks and overcrowding them, which would affect performance levels.

If you are on a Pay As You Go contract then, like with a mobile phone, you will simply not be able to connect to the internet once your data allowance has run out. In each case, you will be able to check how much of your allowance you have used up online, and some companies even send you text messages when you reach certain milestones.

Choosing a Mobile Broadband package

The package you choose will depend on how often you are going to connect to the internet and what you are going to use it for. Mobile broadband is not generally recommended for people who download a lot of data, but it is great for people constantly on the go. You should also take into account the reception that different ISPs provide in your area. Below are the two major types of mobile broadband package:

Contract Mobile Broadband

Mobile broadband is available on a contract just like a mobile phone. Contracts generally last for between 12 and 24 months, and each will come with different data allowances, speeds and prices. Most, however, will include a free dongle.

You should really shop around to find the best deal for you because competition is increasing and there’s the possibility of picking up some real bargains.

However, you may want to pay slightly more and take out a longer contract to receive better speeds and increased data allowances.

Many contracts are also available now with free laptops and netbooks included.

Pay As You Go Mobile Broadband

The concept of Pay As You Go Mobile Broadband is just the same as with a mobile phone. You are not tied into a contract and instead top-up your data allowance as and when you need it. You will need to buy your own dongle, but you don’t run the risk of going over your limit and paying any extra fees.

Starter kits are also available. These are similar to PAYG packages, but they come pre-loaded with a data allowance. They are for people who want to try out mobile broadband for the first time.

Benefits of Mobile Broadband

  • Convenience
  • Excellent coverage
  • No need for a phone line
  • Can be used with multiple computers
  • Very easy to use, no difficult installation
  • More secure than WiFi

Disadvantages of Mobile Broadband

  • Limited data allowances
  • High fees for going over data-allowance limits
  • High fees for overseas usage
  • Could experience weak signal in some areas
  • Generally slower than fixed-line broadband
  • Not as much competition as fixed-line broadband