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Step 1: Is mobile broadband right for you?
Consider carefully whether mobile broadband is the right option for you? Have a read through our Beginner's Guide to Mobile Broadband. If you're just a casual web surfer, updating Facebook now and again, sending a few e-mails, then it may well be better; if on the other hand you regularly stream long videos online, download a lot of music, play games online or you need to share your connection with others in the household, you may find mobile broadband has limitations that will hinder your Internet experience. Mobile broadband is great for many situations, but make sure it's the right option for you.
Step 2: Check the coverage
Mobile phone coverage is getting more universal but in the early days, it was more patchy. If you plan to mainly use your mobile broadband connection at home, make sure the network operator you're considering is able to deliver a good quality service (i.e. reliable and fast enough) in your area. In particular, don't rely exclusively on the coverage maps that the providers produce but ask your neighbours. If you have a 3G or 4G mobile phone, see if you have 3G or 4G coverage in the area. Bear in mind that mobile broadband modems can vary and smaller modems have smaller aerials. If you are unsure, avoid long term commitments. You could ask a friend to borrow their mobile broadband modem and see how well it works.
Step 3: Pay-as-you-go or contract?
You can get mobile broadband services on a Pay-as-you-go (PAYG) or contract basis, just like ordinary mobile phones. You will find the PAYG and one-month contract services tend to have higher setup fees, whilst 12 month contract will offer free hardware. 18 month or longer contracts may include additional allowances or lower monthly costs. Also, if you want a free laptop or tablet as part of the deal, then you will need to sign up to a longer contract. Do make sure you know how much the tablet or laptop is worth before you commit to a contract so you can make sure it's a good deal. If you go with a PAYG or short term contract, you may not be able to use your mobile broadband abroad (see below).
Step 4: Pay-up-front?
Some networks offer a 'pay up front' option where you buy a 3 or 12 month service at a discount. At the end of this period, it reverts to a normal pay-as-you-go service. This would be an ideal as a Christmas present for a teenager who needs to use their connection whilst on the move.
Step 5: How many gigabytes?
There are various packages which provide for different usage levels. Some include a very small amount of bundled traffic whilst others include lots, or may even suggest the service is unlimited. Make sure you understand your likely requirements, and whether you can change this within your contract period, and select the right option.
Do remember that there is no such thing as 'unlimited'. All mobile broadband service providers will include either a fixed allowance or implement some kind of 'fair usage policy' meaning that everyone gets a reasonable service.
Step 6: Hardware options
By far the most popular hardware option is the USB Modem these days, so you will probably want to look at that first. This allows you to move the broadband connection from PC to PC very easily. The latest models even include the software on the USB modem itself so you don't need to carry around a separate driver CD.
Do however check to see if your laptop has a built in 3G broadband modem as many manufacturers (including Sony and Dell) include them on some models. This means you can put your SIM card inside your laptop and not have to plug anything in when you want to connect. Also, these can benefit from a larger internal aerial so they may perform better.
Step 7: Internet access on your phone
You can usually use your 3G or 4G mobile phone and connect your laptop to the Internet, either using Bluetooth or a USB cable. The iPhone calls this 'Internet tethering'. This can't be used on some contracts but you can buy 'bolt ons' which will generally allow it. Check to see if you would benefit from looking at a separate mobile broadband connection.
Step 8: Avoid mobile broadband abroad
Mobile broadband contracts of 12 months or longer (and in some cases shorter contracts) allow you to use it abroad, but this is usually very expensive, even in Europe.
Step 9: Keep an eye on your performance/usage..
Make sure you are aware of your mobile broadband usage and performance. All the network operators include software which connects you to the Internet that also allows you to keep track of how much you're downloading. You can also use our very own (and free) tbbMeter tool (Windows 7, Vista or XP users only) which lets you to set alarms to warn you when you're exceeding particular limits and which works on most mobile broadband connections. This application will allow you to do some speed tests but you can also run our broadband speed test to check how fast you're going at any time.
Step 10: If you just can't make it work...
If you find that your mobile operator promised good coverage in your area but you just can't get a signal, don't let them keep you in a long term contract. You should be able to argue that if they said you should get coverage, then you should be able to use the service.