Compare 4G broadband deals
By Dan Howdle | Wednesday, February 26th 2020
In this guide
- What is 4G broadband?
- Do I need 4G broadband or a 4G mobile SIM?
- 4G coverage and data speeds
- Which providers offer 4G broadband?
- Our 4G broadband checklist
- Frequently asked questions
4G broadband comes in a number of different forms: Data to your mobile, personal hotspot mobile broadband devices, and these days you can even get 4G broadband for your home. Each of these types has a different application and you'll need to know what it is you intend to do with it if you're to select the right one.
Lucky for you, you're in exactly the right place to help you first to understand what sort of 4G broadband you need, and then how to pick the right deal.
What is 4G broadband?
4G simply stands for fourth generation. If you count 1G as mobile phones using only voice calling, 2G adds texting, and 3G adds internet access, 4G is the generation that added speed. So, 'fast' internet access via a mobile network, essentially.
In terms of 4G broadband, you can access it in a number of different ways. There are four main flavours. All involve a 4G SIM card set up with a specific network. They are…
- 4G home broadband – This is the newest of the three concepts. This is where your traditional home broadband router is replaced with a router that connects to the internet via a 4G SIM. A number of UK providers now offer this, and it can be a good solution if you live somewhere with terrible fixed-line internet, but a good, strong 4G signal
- 4G mobile broadband – This is where you have a MiFi device or dongle which you can take anywhere with you. These are small – pocket-sized or smaller – and will either plug directly into a laptop and provide 4G internet (dongle) or allow you to wirelessly connect multiple devices over wifi (MiFi device)
- 4G broadband tethering – This is where you turn your mobile phone into a wifi hotspot, allowing other devices to connect the same as over wifi. Tethering used to be heavily restricted, but these days it's easy to find deals with unlimited tethering up to your data limit
- 4G direct to your mobile phone or tablet – If you want to access 4G broadband, the quickest, simplest and most direct way is to fire up your phone or SIM-equipped tablet and away you go. For the rest of this guide, we're going to focus away from this method, as we reckon you're here for a different sort of solution
Do I need 4G broadband?
Take a look at the different types of 4G broadband above. Does one of these technologies sound like it solves your problem? Chances are one of them does. But there are some downsides to 4G broadband you may want to consider before cancelling your home broadband connection and relying on it entirely.
Just like fixed-line home broadband, 4G broadband isn't the same everywhere. Some places it's fast, others it's slow, there's everything in between, and of course there are still a lot of homes around the UK where 4G signal won't be strong enough indoors to be something you could rely upon to stay online 100% of the time.
Then there's the fact that while fixed-line broadband speeds continue to get faster, 4G has already topped out, with the best average speeds not offering much over standard ADSL (non-fibre) broadband. If you want to go quicker over the airwaves you're going to have to plump for 5G broadband and depending where you live you may be waiting a long time for that. Here are the three reasons you might consider 4G broadband.
- You can get it – Before even thinking of taking out a 4G home broadband deal, you'll want to check whether the signal is strong enough where you live and work from your chosen provider. If you're unsure, ask your neighbours and colleagues how their signal holds up, and of course check the provider's signal map for further clues
- Your home broadband is terrible – For packages including a 4G home broadband router, this will be the number one reason to sign up. If you're unlucky enough to get horrible broadband via a traditional fixed line, perhaps you're lucky enough to get a strong 4G signal
- You have a special application in mind – Perhaps you need back-up broadband for your existing connections for your home or business or you conduct your business meetings in a farmer's field. Ultimately you know what you need your 4G broadband for
4G broadband coverage and data speeds
There are actually only four mobile networks in the UK that will afford you a 4G data signal. These are known as MNOs or Mobile Network Operators, because they own and run their own separate networks, including masts, cabling, data centres and everything else. All other providers are known as MVNOs of Mobile 'Virtual' Network Operators. Virtual because although classed as their own network, they rent capacity from one of the four MNOs. This is often called 'piggybacking'.
These four networks are: Three, Vodafone, EE and O2. All of them provide 4G home broadband, MiFi devices, dongles, and of course mobile phone and data SIMs. In addition there are one or two providers that also dabble in multiple 4G broadband solutions – see the 'providers' section further down. Here are the four MNOs and how they compare on speed and coverage, from fastest to slowest. All four providers offer over 99% UK coverage by population.
EE 4G broadband
According to Opensignal, 4G download speeds on the EE network average 28.99Mbps, with an average latency of 39.77 milliseconds. This puts EE's 4G speeds verging on what is offered by entry-level fibre broadband packages. It is the fastest of the four MNO providers.
Vodafone 4G broadband
According to Opensignal, 4G download speeds on the Vodafone network average 21.92Mbps, with an average latency of 40.78 milliseconds. This puts Vodafone's 4G speeds verging a little faster than the best ADSL can offer, but around 10Mbps below the average you might expect with an entry-level fibre broadband deal. It is the second-fastest of the four MNO providers.
Three 4G broadband
According to Opensignal, 4G download speeds on the Three network average 18.78Mbps, with an average latency of 48.15 milliseconds. This puts Three's 4G speeds around the top end of what you would expect to get from an ADSL broadband package. It is the third-fastest of the four MNO providers.
O2 4G broadband
According to Opensignal, 4G download speeds on the O2 network average 14.61Mbps, with an average latency of 42.38 milliseconds. This puts O2's 4G speeds close to the average you would expect from a standard ADSL home broadband deal. It is the slowest of the four MNO providers.
Which providers offer 4G broadband?
Sticking to providers who offer an expanded range of 4G broadband products – not just 4G SIMs, but also MiFi, dongles and/or home 4G broadband – the list is actually relatively short. Here's who they are and a brief description of what they offer.
- EE mobile broadband – 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 mobile broadband – 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 mobile broadband – 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
4G broadband checklist: What you need
What you need will depend on the type of 4G broadband that is best suited to your purposes.
- A compatible mobile phone – If you're just planning to tether other devices to your mobile, using your mobile as a wifi router, then almost any deal will do. Juste bear in mind that you may need more data than if you were just using the mobile on its own
- A 4G home router – If you take out a 4G home broadband deal with a 4G wifi router for the home from Three, say, you will get the router your need in the package when you take it out. Same with any other provider – if you take out the deal, you'll get the router
- A 4G MiFi device or dongle – If it's 4G mobile broadband your after in this particular guise, you're going to need a MiFi device or a dongle. Now, usually you won't get this for free with your deal. You'll have to buy it up-front. We're not entirely certain why this differs from the free router you can expect from every other type of broadband but hey, we don't make the rules!
- A strong 4G signal where you live and work – Please do check before signing up that your chosen network's signal isn't merely present where you live and work, but strong! A weak 4G signal can play havoc with reliability. If in doubt ask neighbours and colleagues as well as checking the provider's availability map
Frequently asked questions
Can 4G replace home broadband?
Yes, and indeed it does if you choose to get a 4G home broadband deal. However, 4G speeds aren't rising and 4G can be less reliable and more prone to changes in weather as well as your geographic location.
Will 4G make home broadband obsolete?
Unlikely. Even as 5G broadband is just beginning to make an appearance even that is unlikely to supercede fixed-line home broadband entirely. We predict a future where the two technologies sit alongside and compliment one another rather than one technology or the other winning or losing.
How fast is 4G broadband?
Theoretically, 4G broadband can manage download speeds of up to 350Mbps, but this literally never happens out in the real world. The best average 4G speed measured is from EE, with an average nationwide 4G download speed of 28.99Mbps.
Is 4G dangerous?
No. There are plenty of conspiracy theories flying around about the health risks associated with 3G, 4G and 5G mobile signals, but zero evidence of any health risk to human beings beyond perhaps staring at your phone while walking and falling down a manhole.
Is 4G broadband any good?
It delivers speeds of up to 100Mbps to most locations in the UK. It's less reliable than fixed-line broadband with the networks suffering more frequent outages as well as being more susceptible to interruptions from adverse weather, but ultimately broadband is broadband.