Mobile broadband deals explained
By Dan Howdle | Thursday, March 28th 2019
In this guide
- What is mobile broadband?
- Do I need mobile broadband?
- Coverage and data speeds
- Which providers offer mobile broadband?
- Mobile broadband checklist
- Frequently asked questions
Mobile broadband fills in the gaps where regular, home broadband deals can't go. Its face has changed somewhat over the last few years, however. The ubiquity of the smartphone means there aren't as many situations where we need access to the internet (but don't have it) as there once were.
Nevertheless, mobile broadband is still a valuable niche. There remain circumstances where living and working in locations where fixed-line broadband isn't an option requires something with a bit more oomph than your mobile phone can provide or sustain. Let's take a look at mobile broadband in its current form, what it is, where it's useful and whether or not you actually need it.
What is mobile broadband?
There are a number of different devices and technologies that fall under the umbrella of 'mobile broadband'. And although they largely deliver the same thing – internet without the need for a fixed-line router – they take a number of different forms and fit a number of different situations.
- Dongles – Usually come in the form of a USB 'stick' that looks a lot like those USB memory sticks you also barely see anymore. A dongle plugs into a single device – usually a laptop – and uses a mobile data network (like a smartphone) to provide internet access to that device only. They're hard to come by these days, but one or two providers do still offer them. They are a niche within a niche – ideal only for those who travel everywhere with their laptop, and require constant internet access
- MiFi devices – These can also be USB devices, but will often only use USB to charge their batteries. MiFi devices are small, pocket-sized boxes that act exactly like a home broadband router, with the obvious difference that they are battery powered and you can take them anywhere. You won't get the same sort of range on one of these that you will on a home router, but they are a good way for lots of people to access the internet if they are all sat relatively close to it
- Data only SIMs – The most common use for these is to put one in a tablet. They're often referred to as 'tablet SIMs' in fact. They provide mobile data, but without a phone number, or call and text bundles. Quite a lot of newer laptops have a SIM slot for one of these. So, if your laptop can accept one, you could have internet access wherever you go without the need for a dongle.
- Mobile hotspots/tethering – If you have a smartphone, chances are you can do something called 'tethering'. This is where you go into your wifi and connectivity options and switch on something called 'mobile hotspot'. When you do this your mobile will temporarily become a mobile broadband router. If you can do this reliably and it doesn't eat too much into your data allowance, there's a good argument to be made for taking this option over investing in some other, additional means of mobile connectivity
- 3G/4G home broadband – Only a couple of providers offer this, but this is essentially the same as a MiFi device, only this one plugs into the mains and is designed to act as your full-time home broadband router. As with MiFi, it won't need a fixed line, but instead uses mobile network data. The main drawback with it is you will be limited in the amount of data you can use each month, but it's a good solution for those who cannot get any workable internet
- Public wifi – Depending on where you find yourself without internet and how much bandwidth (speed) you need to do what you need to do, free public wifi can be a good solution. And it won't cost you a bean. Well, maybe a coffee bean
Do I need mobile broadband?
Even if all you do is skim through all the different types of mobile broadband above, you'll immediately get the idea that there are going to be a number of different reasons you may need mobile broadband. All of them, we would argue however, fall into one of the following four categories.
- You have terrible fixed line broadband – Though superfast (decent) broadband is available to something like 97% of UK households, that still leaves well over half a million homes that can't get it. Things tend to be especially bad if you're somewhere especially rural. In this situation, you may wish to consider mobile broadband as although it is comparatively expensive, it's still a lot cheaper than satellite broadband
- You travel for work – Some jobs will see you out and about all day long, maybe up and down the country, maybe even regularly abroad. For this type of person a mobile broadband package is an insurance policy that you'll remain connected wherever you go, within range of a wifi signal or not
- No other options – If you have no broadband connection, no mobile phone you can tether to and no other options wherever it is you intend to live or work, mobile broadband is pretty much all you have left
- You need a temporary solution – You can get mobile broadband deals on one-month rolling contracts. It therefore can ideally suit someone who only needs remote internet access at certain times of year – or even as a one-off
Mobile broadband coverage and data speeds
Whichever mobile broadband solution you ultimately choose, you'll be drawing your data from one of only four networks. You see, although there are many, many mobile providers in the UK, there are only four physical networks: EE, Vodafone, Three and O2. All other providers 'piggyback' on one of these four.
We should all be grateful for this. It means we only need to think about the coverage and download/upload speeds of four networks, even though there exists a wider range of providers.
Note that in any of these measures, that does not mean landmass. There are still significant spacial gaps in mobile coverage across all network providers. Happily, these holes aren't in the same spots from one provider to the next, meaning you should check each network providers' coverage map to ensure signal reaches the spots you need it to.
EE claims the best 4G coverage. But there's not much in it, with all four providers claiming 99% or greater coverage by population. According to crowdsourced speed data from insight organisation Tutela, in January 2019 EE provided the fastest average data speeds of the four network providers with average 4G download speeds of around 27Mbps.
Vodafone also claims 99% 4G coverage by population. Tutela measured its average 4G download speed as around 21Mbps.
Three also claims 99% 4G coverage by population. Tutela measured its average 4G download speed as around 11Mbps, the slowest of the four.
O2 also claims 99% 4G coverage by population. Tutela measured its average 4G download speed as around 16Mbps.
Which providers offer mobile broadband?
While most mobile providers offer SIM only or SIM plus handset deals that allow mobile hotspot tethering, relatively few providers offer a comprehensive range of dongles, MiFi devices and 4G home broadband. Here are those providers and what each of them offers.
- EE – On the EE network (of course), EE offers a wide range of mobile broadband devices. No stick-style laptop dongles here, but you can get a couple of different MiFi devices. EE also offers 4G home broadband with monthly data limits up to 500GB. They're not cheap, mind
- Vodafone – You can get both stick-style laptop dongles and pocket-sized, self powered MiFi boxes from Vodafone. There's also Vodafone Airtel, which delivers 4G home broadband with limits up to 500GB. Again, not cheap at the high end, but lower limits are actually very reasonable
- Three – Has partnered with Chinese mobile manufacturer Huawei to offer both a MiFi device and 4G home broadband
- BT – Offers traditional laptop dongles and a versatile MiFi device, both offered with a variety of data limits. BT also provides access to 5 million wifi hotspots allowing you to economise on your data usage
- O2 – Offers just one device – a Netgear 'Pocket Hotspot'. It's a discreet MiFi device offering with a range of different data caps
- Virgin Media – Like O2, Virgin offers just one device with various data limits
Mobile broadband checklist: What you need
So what do you actually need to do if you want mobile broadband? Here, we put in order what we believe to be the best way to approach it.
- Will tethering do? – This is something you need to ask yourself before shelling out for mobile broadband. If you have a smartphone, chances are you can use it as a mobile hotspot, which may in fact do everything you need in terms of ensuring you have an internet connection wherever you go. Even if you're going to bump up against your mobile's data limit by doings so, it's still going to be cheaper to increase that limit than it will be to take out an additional, bespoke mobile broadband deal
- Pick the right mobile broadband device – If you only need mobile broadband for a single laptop, either a USB laptop dongle or a data-only SIM will serve your needs. If you need broadband for multiple devices when you're out and about, a USB or battery-powered MiFi device is required
- Choose a provider – We advise you choose a provider solely based on the coverage it provides in the places you're going to need internet access. Check each provider's coverage map to see if there is a clear choice
- Choose a deal – Use our comparison table (above) to find a deal that suits. We don't currently list all deals or providers, but we're working on it. Hopefully there will be something there that tickles your fancy
Frequently asked questions
How does mobile broadband work?
Exactly like the data on your smartphone. Connectivity is delivered wirelessly via mobile network masts. The main difference is that mobile broadband is geared towards supplying broadband to other devices beyond just your phone.
Is there such a thing as pay as you go mobile broadband?
Yes. All four network providers – EE, Three, Vodafone and O2 – offer mobile broadband on a pay as you go (PAYG)/top-up basis.
Should I get 3G or 4G mobile broadband?
You won't have a choice. When you get a mobile broadband device, it'll always be 4G by default. If it finds itself in a location where it cannot access 4G, but 3G is available, it will use that instead. 3G is substantially slower than 4G, but still perfectly adequate for basic online tasks.
Are there business mobile broadband packages?
Yes. However, we do not compare them on Cable. If you're looking for a business mobile broadband package, each of the UK's four network providers offer them – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – so you should pay a visit to their websites.
Can I get unlimited mobile broadband?
Yes. But only from Three, and it's not cheap. Also bear in mind that Three has the lowest average 4G data speeds of the four UK networks.
What's the fastest mobile broadband I can get?
Right now, anything from EE. It is far and away the fastest mobile broadband provider when it comes to data speeds, offering an average download speed of 27Mbps according to independent measurements from Tutela. Vodafone is the seconds fastest, averaging 21Mbps, then O2 at 16Mbps and finally Three at 11Mbps.
Is a MiFi device better than mobile tethering?
For some applications yes, for others no. If you need internet access for a wide range of devices at the same time and with a fair amount of range, a dedicated MiFi device is going to provide a better experience. If all you need is internet access for your own laptop, however, tethering it to your mobile may well be an indistinguishable experience compared to a dedicated dongle.
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