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Beginner's Guide to Mobile Broadband

What is Mobile Broadband?

Mobile Broadband refers to an Internet access technology which uses the mobile phone network for access. This is different from "wireless broadband" which is used when referring to "wireless hotspots" such as cafes, hotels or airport lounges which provide Internet access or "wireless routers" which you install on a fixed phone line in the home. A mobile broadband service can be used anywhere within a coverage area (including abroad), just like your mobile phone although it is important to understand that the speeds you get may vary just like with fixed line services. Some mobile broadband providers such as EE offer 'fixed line' broadband services as well, so make sure you know what you're buying.

Although mobile internet access has been around for many years, the speeds have recently increased to provide "broadband" level services. We regard a service as 'broadband' when its downstream speed generally exceeds 250Kbps (kilobits per second). This is equivalent to "0.25 meg".

Which is better: Mobile or fixed line broadband?

This depends entirely on what your broadband requirements are. Some people find the flexibility of being able to use the service away from home make mobile broadband ideal, but if you are streaming TV / music, or you play online role playing games, mobile broadband may not be suitable.

  Mobile Broadband
(i.e. 4G, 3G, HSDPA, etc.)
Fixed Line Broadband
(e.g. Cable, DSL, Fibre Broadband)
  • Use anywhere within coverage area
    (coverage varies; do check before buying!)
  • Get set up the same day
    (buy a USB modem from a high street shop and plug it in)
  • Take with you when you move
    (assuming your new home has good coverage!)
  • May be cheaper for 'occasional' users
    (if you just check e-mail, Facebook, etc.)
  • Generally bigger usage allowances
    (you can use it more without incurring extra charges)
  • Lower latency - suitable for games
  • Better for 'VoIP' Internet Telephony services
  • On average, faster than mobile broadband
  • More suitable for sharing with family/housemates
  • Higher latency; not suitable for some games
  • Stricter download limits;
  • Speed variations depending on your location
    (might not be usable in some areas)
  • Activation can take a few days or longer
  • Long contracts might be a problem if you need to move
    (although some providers allow you to move a contract)
  • If you want to use it around the house without wires,
    you also need to buy a wireless router.
Ideal for.. Those needing to use broadband on the move (e.g. if you stay at a hotel often and want to avoid bills) and/or you are a light user who checks e-mail and browses the web but not for those engaging in bandwidth intensive activities. People looking for a broadband connection at home who might have requirements which increase over time, streaming videos, downloading music or sharing broadband with other members of the household.

As you can see, mobile broadband has some advantages and disadvantages, so you need to evaluate what works best for you.

What hardware do I need?

In order to use mobile broadband you will need a modem and a SIM card similar to the one in your mobile phone. You can get both of these from your network operator, although it is worth noting many new laptops have 3G/4G broadband modems built in (which may perform better due to the antenna being inside the laptop screen in some cases, or worse because it's older; you need to check. These may be found under a battery).

The most common modem is called the 'USB dongle' which is quite small these days, but you may still find ExpressCard modems as well. In addition, it is possible to buy mobile broadband 'routers' which allow more than one person to share the connection.

USB 3G HSDPA Broadband Modem

USB Broadband Modem 'dongle'

Laptop with built-in 3G HSDPA Broadband Modem

Laptop with built-in Modem

Vodafone Expresscard 3G HSDPA Broadband Modem

Expresscard Modem

How fast is mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband speeds vary depending on the type of connection you can get. Wherever you have mobile phone coverage, you can usually get a "GPRS" connection, which runs at up to 80Kbps downstream and 40Kbps upstream, whilst in the centre of major cities, capacity permitting, you can get speeds of up to 60Mbps. You also need to ensure your mobile broadband modem and the service you subscribe to is capable of delivering that speed.

Standard Downstream Speed Upstream speed Typical Latency  
GPRS 80 Kbps 20 - 40 Kbps 300 - 1000ms Used for data access in areas where there is no 3G or 3.5G coverage.
EDGE 237 Kbps 59 - 118 Kbps 300 - 1000ms Provides faster speeds than GPRS but is a fair step away from 3G and faster in practice.
384 Kbps 64 Kbps 200 - 300 ms UMTS is often referred to as "3G" even though technically that term is used for various standards.
1.8 Mbps
3.6 Mbps
7.2 Mbps
2.1 Mbps 100 - 150ms Combination of HSDPA and HSUPA technology to provide speeds up to a theoretical maximum of 14.4 Mbps. Users should expect slower speeds.
1.8 Mbps
40 Mbps
60 Mbps
20 Mbps 60 - 80ms LTE is the technology used in the UK to provide 4G speeds. It has a theoretical maximum of 300 Mbps. Users should expect average speeds around 7-12Mbps depending on coverage.

It is worth noting that GPRS latency is usually quite high, making it less suitable for some types of applications where 3.5G/HSDPA may still work well. Where ranges of upstream speed are shown, the speed will depend on how much network capacity is assigned to 'upstream' vs 'downstream' traffic, with the typical speed more likely to be the lower one. The above illustrates what is available in the UK for most consumers and is not a technical summary of the protocols' capabilities. Protocols such as HSUPA provide faster upstream speeds, often at the cost of downstream bandwidth and faster services are to be expected over the coming years on next generation services.

You may also find that using 3G and 4G, your speed whilst stationary or walking is much better than if you are in a fast moving vehicle. Sometimes, trains running very fast make it difficult to use mobile broadband.

Should I get mobile broadband?

This depends on your individual requirements. Generally speaking, if you browse the web, check e-mail, shop online and so on, mobile broadband will often perform well. If you use very 'bandwidth intensive' applications like downloading lots of music or videos, or you share the connection with family or housemates, you'll probably be better off with a fixed line connection.

Can I share my mobile broadband connection with my family?

Most mobile broadband connections will use 'USB dongles' which plug into one computer. It is possible to share this by running some software, or you can use a mobile broadband router but this costs a bit so it is mostly used in businesses. If you want a broadband solution for your family in your home, fixed line broadband tends to be the better option.

What is a 'Fair Usage Policy'?

A 'Fair Usage Policy' (or 'FUP' for short) is a policy used by several ISPs which tries to ensure that the majority of their users are not adversely affected by the bandwidth usage of a minority. There are some people who want to download a lot more than others, to the extent where by their use starts affecting the speeds other users can achieve at peak times. A fair usage policy is used by an ISP to restrict the service to those individuals who in their view abuse an 'unlimited' or 'unmetered' service.

Consider for example if your local street had one individual who left all their water taps running 24x7 as they didn't have a water meter; this might cause the rest of the street to have problems with water pressure at peak times as they are sharing that resource. A fair usage policy is a way for an ISP to exercise discretion in how to deal with this type of behaviour.

Can I use my mobile broadband abroad?

You will usually be able to use your mobile broadband connection outside of the UK, but just like with mobile phones, this can be a lot more expensive as you are roaming onto a foreign network. Mobile broadband services are very expensive when roaming and we would advise you to never use your mobile broadband service abroad without checking the costs with your network operator. You can quickly run up thousands of pounds of bills if you're not careful.

How many gigabytes will I need each month?

Broadband service providers will often sell services based on how many gigabytes (GB) you want to download each month. This allows them to charge a higher price those using their connection more.

A fixed line broadband user is likely to use a few GB each month whilst an intensive user might well reach 100GB per month. Mobile broadband packages tend to be suitable for low level users. Use of video sites like YouTube or iPlayer is likely to significantly increase usage. You can use our tbbMeter download monitor tool to see how much you use.