For many years now, most UK consumers have been able to connect to a broadband internet connection in their own home, either by actually plugging in a wire between their computer and the phone jack or by using a wireless connection.
For individuals who would like to be able to access the internet whilst out and about on something other than their smartphone, mobile broadband is now widely available; but what is mobile broadband, actually, and how do you use it?
Mobile broadband is essentially what it sounds – it’s a way to deliver broadband speed internet to devices while you’re away from home or even on the move.
It’s typically offered through a router, a lot like the one that powers your home internet, except battery-powered and smaller, so it’s portable. Of course, there are also no wires involved, so rather than connecting to fibre, you’re connecting to a mobile network.
The router does this by having a SIM card inside it, so it can connect to the same 5G, 4G or 3G signals as a phone, and then it broadcasts that connection as a Wi-Fi network that other devices (such as laptops and tablets) can detect and connect to.
That makes it a handy way to get things like laptops – which don’t tend to have SIM cards of their own – online when there’s no accessible Wi-Fi in a location.
Mobile broadband routers – such as the Huawei 4G Plus MiFi - tend to be able to get somewhere between 10 and 32 devices connected to the internet at once, which even at the low end should be enough for a whole family or other small group of people.
However, there are also mobile broadband dongles, which are like a USB stick that you plug into a laptop or other supported device to get them online. These are more compact but can only get one device connected at once, and they aren’t compatible with the same range of devices.
Finally, you can simply tether your smartphone to your other gadgets to provide a mobile broadband connection. This – also known as a mobile hotspot – means sharing the connection and data from your phone, using it much like a mobile broadband router explained above. Though you should note that this will drain your phone’s battery and data allowance a lot faster, so if you want to use mobile broadband much then a dedicated device is a better option.
Fortunately, they’re not hard to get hold of, with most networks – including Three – selling mobile broadband routers directly on a range of plans.
Mobile broadband devices are typically very simple to set up and use. In the case of a mobile broadband router you simply stick a SIM card in, make sure it’s charged up, switch it on, and either immediately or after a simple setup process it should start broadcasting a network, one that other devices can connect to like an ordinary Wi-Fi network.
Dongles are even simpler, as you simply plug them in to the device that you want to get online, and they should usually automatically do the rest.
The first time you set the connection up with either of these you will probably have to activate your account with a subscriber number and/or password, but your service provider will give you these and full instructions on how to get access.
As for tethering your smartphone, that’s simple too and basically just involves enabling a portable hotspot from your phone’s settings screen, but we have a full tethering guide here.
Mobile broadband uses the country-wide 4G and 3G mobile networks and in some cases even 5G, to get you access to the internet.
Coverage on 4G and 3G is almost comprehensive, but there are still a few spots, often in the countryside, where mobile broadband across both the 3G and 4G network isn’t available yet, so it is worth entering your postcode into a coverage checker before you enter into a contract – most mobile networks offer these on their websites.
5G meanwhile is still very patchy at the time of writing (as well as not being supported by all mobile broadband devices), but coverage of all types is set to improve, so keep an eye on the coverage maps if you find that at present you live somewhere that doesn’t have good mobile broadband coverage.
The key advantage of mobile broadband is that it means you can get your devices online almost anywhere. You’re not limited to homes, offices, and coffee shops, and not reliant on often slow and unsecure public Wi-Fi when out and about.
Mobile broadband devices also often let you get lots of devices online at once, so you only need one mobile broadband router for all your gadgets and those of your family, friends, or colleagues. And they’re compact, often small enough to slip into a pocket, so they’re ideal for carrying around.
Many providers also offer a one-month rolling contract, so you can get a good monthly contract price and download deal but still have the flexibility of being able to change deals with only a month’s notice.
Mobile broadband is the perfect solution for business travellers who spend a lot of time on trains, or people who live in temporary accommodation for some of the year such as students, who may not want to spend out on expensive yearly home-based internet connections – though for those users there’s also 5G, 4G and 3G home broadband, which is much like mobile broadband, but uses a box that you plug in. If you are interested in home broadband check out the best device we found during our reviews - the Three 5G Hub review.
There are a few points to note about the availability and usage of mobile broadband, as it isn’t exactly the same experience as using your home wireless internet access. The speed of internet access across a mobile broadband network will generally be slower than the speed you might be used to across a home network, especially in areas where only 3G is available – though with 5G it’s competitive.
Another thing to be careful of is the fact that as you move around, the strength of your 3G, 4G, or 5G signal will change, so if you’re working on the move using mobile broadband – on a train, for example – you may find that the connection dips in and out, so keep saving your work.
Mobile broadband users also need to keep a watchful eye on their level of use, as allowances are sometimes limited. How much you need will entirely depend on how you plan to use the internet. For an average user who plans to use the service as a supplement to a home network, around 4GB a month should be fine.
One hour of web browsing should only use up around 60MB, so a plan that gives just 2GB a month would still allow an hour of web browsing every day. For a clearer idea of how much data you might need, check out our full ‘how much data do I need?’ guide.
If you are interested in subscribing to mobile broadband, it’s worth talking to your home broadband provider, as they might do a bundled subscription combining home and mobile services. Otherwise, there is a wide range of options at many price points available on the web and the high street, including at your local Three store.