Why choose 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 broadband is available to something like 96% 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, subject to having access to a strong 4G or 5G signal in the area, it is an ideal alternative to cabled 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
Coverage and data speeds
Whichever 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 mobile, Vodafone mobile, Three mobile and O2 mobile. 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 gaps in mobile coverage across all network providers. Happily, these holes aren't usually in the same spots from one provider to the next, meaning you should check each network providers' coverage map to find the best one for your area.
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 October 2021 EE provided the fastest average data speeds of the four network providers with median download speeds of 31.1Mbps.
Three – Claims 99% 4G coverage by population. Tutela measured its average download speed as 15.6Mbps.
O2 – 99% 4G coverage by population. Tutela measured an average download speed as 13.4Mbps.
Vodafone – Claims 99% 4G coverage by population. Tutela measured its median download speed as 11.5Mbps, the slowest of the four.
When it comes to average 5G speeds in particular however, according to Tutela’s study O2 leads the way, averaging 53.1Mbps, with Three in second place with 49.1Mbps, EE in third place with 48.6Mbps, and Vodafone in last place with just 21.6Mbps.
Which providers offer mobile broadband?
While most networks offer SIM-only or SIM-plus-handset deals that allow 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 mobile broadband – EE offers a wide choice of mobile broadband devices, including home broadband options on 4G and 5G with a monthly data limit of 500GB. There are no dongles on offer, but EE does also offer a choice of two data SIMs, ideal for tablets and laptops, with a maximum data allowance of 20GB.
- Vodafone mobile broadband – Vodafone offers the full range of mobile broadband options; choose from a dongle, a MIFi device, 4G home broadband or a data-only SIM. It offers unlimited data on all its devices.
- Three mobile broadband – Has partnered with Chinese manufacturer Huawei to offer both a MiFi device, 4G home broadband and data-only SIMs. Unlimited data is available with all options.
- O2 mobile broadband – Offers a choice of two Pocket Hotspots (MiFi devices) on either 4G or 5G, along with a 4G dongle. All devices come with the option of unlimited data. O2 does not offer 4G home broadband.
- Virgin mobile broadband – Virgin Media offers just one portable device with a maximum data limit of 15GB, running on the O2 network.
All mobile broadband providers
What you need to do
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. If you have a smartphone, chances are you can use it as a 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 doing 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 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 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
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 you have plenty of data to spare, there's a good argument to be made for taking this option over investing in some other, additional means of mobile connectivity
- 3G/4G/5G 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. Some 4G home broadband providers offer unlimited data too, making it a good solution for those who cannot get any workable cabled internet
- Public wifi – Depending on where you find yourself without internet and how much bandwidth (speed) you need to do what you want to do, free public wifi can be a good solution. And it won't cost you a bean. Well, maybe a coffee bean