Mobile broadband

Mobile broadband could suit your needs, especially if you want internet access on the go, but be wary of lack of signal and data allowance.

Key points

  • Mobile broadband uses the mobile phone network and requires a data card or USB dongle
  • It can be useful for those seeking broadband when they're on the move
  • Signal can be patchy around the country - giving you slower access in more remotes areas

When we talk about mobile broadband we're not referring to internet access on your mobile phone, but a type of internet connection that uses the mobile phone network rather than a fixed-line broadband service.

To access mobile broadband you need a data card or a USB dongle. While some laptops have this kind of connection built-in, some don't and rely on a dongle, which plugs into the USB port on your computer.

You can purchase a dongle from a mobile phone network and then connect to the internet using that network.

This means you can browse the web anywhere without having to use up your data allowance or rely on wi-fi.

Image of a woman looking at a tablet

Note that levels of service and browsing costs will vary from different providers.

Why mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband is generally used by those who don't want a fixed landline and/or those who want access to broadband on the go - perhaps when travelling to business meetings or working at external locations.

If your job demands regular travel and you find yourself spending a lot of time at different offices or on public transport, using mobile broadband could allow you to work while on the go.

Your smartphone may give you access to the internet, but working on documents is difficult, nigh on impossible, on a screen so small and it can be costly if you exceed your monthly data allowance.

Mobile broadband allows you to take all the capabilities of a wired internet connection with you on the road. Working remotely may mean relying on other people's internet connection - in cafes or hotels - but when paired with a laptop or tablet, mobile delivery allows you to create a portable office wherever you are.

This could, for example, be useful for roving reporters sending pieces from the field, or bloggers reporting on a live event or conference.

Mobile broadband could be a suitable choice for students, too. Unlike standard broadband it shouldn't require a contract and could help to avoid awkward conversations over bills or internet usage with housemates. You won't need to ask your landlord about getting a broadband connection to the house, either.

If you download photos, music or films, mobile broadband may not be for you

Is mobile broadband right for me?

Web access wherever you are sounds tempting, but you're relying on a signal being available wherever you are to make this promise a reality.

The growth of wi-fi networks across the world is continuing - in public spaces and buildings, cafes, hotels, offices and bars, for example. Many of these services may be free, offering a cost-effective alternative to mobile broadband.

But if you're going somewhere off the beaten track where wi-fi isn't available, you don't want to search for an accessible wi-fi connection, or you don't want to solely rely on someone else's service, mobile broadband may be a suitable alternative or back-up.

Availability in your area depends on network coverage and signal strength. If the aerials haven't been upgraded to 3G or 4G then speed and connectivity can suffer significantly.

You may also want to keep an eye out for 5G, which the government is looking to trial over the next few years. It will help to make data transfer even faster and maintain a speedy connection for mobile devices, so you'll hopefully never have to see the word 'buffering' again.

Mobile broadband at home

If you're considering mobile broadband for use at home, there are a few things to think about beforehand.

As with other types of broadband, the speed advertised isn't usually the speed you receive. This is why speeds are promised with a qualifier of 'up to', such as up to 7.2Mbps.

If you're accessing the internet to use data-heavy streaming services like Netflix or are a regular online gamer, the speeds offered by mobile broadband may be insufficient for your needs and it's unlikely to be the most cost-effective option.

Similarly, if you download photos, music or films, mobile broadband may not be for you. The data allowances offered tend to be more in line with what you find as part of a mobile phone package, perhaps around the 1Gb-5Gb mark - fine if you're happy to use the internet for general surfing and reading emails, but insufficient for more data-heavy activities.

To decide if mobile is the right option for your needs, think about your internet usage and the speed your usage relies on.

What hardware do I need for mobile broadband?

To use mobile broadband you'll need a special type of modem-router - often referred to as a mobile hotspot - or a Sim card, like the one found in your mobile phone. Many new laptops have 3G or 4G broadband modems built in - it's worth checking before getting in touch with your network operator, as the antenna found in your laptop may perform better if it's newer.

A dongle is the most common modem used to access mobile broadband - it looks like a typical USB stick, but newer ones can be smaller.

If you want to share mobile broadband across your household, a mobile hotspot router will be necessary. But in this scenario, you may find fixed line broadband more appropriate for your family's needs.

By Emily Bater