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 O2 and Orange 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".
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 downloading movies or lots of music, or you play online role playing games, mobile broadband may not be suitable.
(i.e. 3G, HSDPA, etc.)
|Fixed Line Broadband
(e.g. Cable, ADSL)
|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.
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 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 can get PCMCIA card and 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 Broadband Modem 'dongle'
|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||Used by Orange, T-Mobile and O2 only since launch of first generation of iPhone|
|384 Kbps||64 Kbps||200 - 300 ms||UMTS is often referred to as "3G" even though technically that term is used for various standards.|
|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.|
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 al so find that using 3G, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 50GB 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.
We list the costs of additional usage for each package if you select some packages to compare on our mobile broadband listings. Within the UK you are looking typically at a few pence per megabyte upwards to around 30p/MB depending on package and type of connection.
T-Mobile's terms and conditions indicate they won't charge you but will not charge you if you exceed your usage allowance, but they may restrict your connection depending on how often you exceed the allowance and by how much.
Vodafone's packages include a fair usage policy of between 1 and 20GB per month depending on the packager (or 50-500MB per 24 hour session on some options). Vodafone may "ask you to moderate your behaviour" and they may in extreme cases limit the speed, block your access or disconnect your service if you keep exceeding the fair usage limits.
O2 charge 20p/MB for any usage in excess of the bundle you subscribe to on monthly contracts. PAYG customers will need to top up when their usage allowance if they use up their allowance.
Orange will charge between 1.96p to 4.9p/MB for "out of bundle" usage subject to a maximum of £30/month
3 Mobile charge 10p/MB beyond your inclusive allowance for contract customers and 30p/MB to pay-as-you-go customers.
Virgin Mobile charges 1.46p/MB where you exceed the 3GB fair usage policy.
Note that using mobile broadband abroad is very expensive. Read our guide and talk to your service provider before you travel.