Mobile Broadband Explained: Dongles, Hotspots & Tariffs

March 20th, 2013

Mobile broadband gives you fast internet access whilst on-the-go. We look at mobile broadband technologies, dongles and tariffs.

Mobile Broadband UsersMobile broadband is a technology for accessing the internet from a PC, laptop, netbook or tablet. Unlike fixed-line broadband, you can immediately get online anywhere there’s a mobile signal. There is no need to worry about phone lines, cables or bulky pieces of equipment.

It can be ideal for working during the morning commute – you can also use it to access the internet when you’re away from home. Mobile broadband can be especially useful whilst travelling – it’s a great alternative to expensive hotel wi-fi or the hassle that comes with finding a coffee shop with wi-fi. Compared to public wi-fi hotspots, mobile broadband also offers improved security.

What is mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband refers to a high-speed internet connection that’s delivered over a mobile network. Whereas traditional broadband connections are tied to a single phone line and hence a single location, mobile broadband connections are portable and can be used wherever there’s a 3G mobile signal. You can use it with the minimum of hassle, wherever you are in the UK. This includes when you’re on a train, in the car, in a hotel or in a coffee shop.

Mobile broadband is offered by all of the UK’s major mobile networks. To get started, you’ll need either a dongle or a hotspot. You’ll also need a mobile broadband tariff. In this article, we look at how you can use mobile broadband and the range of tariff options that are available to you. We’ll also look at technologies like wi-fi, tethering and 4G.

How do I use mobile broadband?

To use mobile broadband, you’ll either need a USB dongle that plugs in to your computer or a mobile broadband hotspot.

USB Dongle.

Mobile Broadband DongleA dongle is a small device that plugs in to your computer. It’s light and portable and looks a little bit like a flash drive or a memory stick. To get online, plug the dongle into a spare USB port on your computer. The dongle will install some software on your PC and will add a new connection to the “Network Connections” dialog on your computer. Simply double-click on the new connection to get started.

When you’re done, simply unplug the dongle from your computer. There’s no need to charge your dongle: it’s powered through the computer’s USB port and is ready to use whenever you need it.

  • Can be used on one device at a time.
  • Compatible with PCs, laptops and netbooks. Requires a spare USB port.
  • Doesn’t need to be charged: the dongle is powered by your laptop.
  • Cheaper than a mobile broadband hotspot.

The following USB dongles are available:

Mobile Broadband Hotspot.

O2 Pocket HotspotA hotspot is a portable device, similar in size to your mobile phone. More advanced than a dongle, a hotspot will allow up to 5 devices to share a mobile broadband connection. All devices with wi-fi can be used with a hotspot: this includes laptops, tablets, MP3 players, games consoles and e-book readers. There is no need to install any additional software: the mobile broadband connection will simply appear on all your devices as a new option in the list of wi-fi networks.

As the mobile broadband hotspot is its own standalone device, it has a separate internal battery. You’ll need to charge it on a regular basis. This can make it slightly inconvenient to use and can be overkill if you don’t need to connect multiple devices to the internet.

  • Can be used on up to five devices at a time.
  • Compatible with any wi-fi enabled device. This includes laptops, tablets, MP3 players, game consoles and e-book readers.
  • Needs to be charged as it is powered by its own battery.
  • More expensive than a USB dongle. Can be overkill unless you really want to get multiple devices online.

The following hotspots are available:

What tariffs are available for mobile broadband?

The UK’s major mobile networks offer mobile broadband on both a Pay Monthly contract or on a Pay As You Go basis. The sole exception is Orange: they only offer mobile broadband on a contract basis. giffgaff offers mobile broadband on a SIM-only basis: you can use it for cheap data if you have an unlocked dongle or hotspot. You can grab a free giffgaff SIM here.

Pay Monthly contracts.

The following mobile broadband contracts are available in the UK, in order of price. We’ve started from the cheapest tariff. It’s important to choose the best value tariff with a download allowance that’s suitable for your usage.

Network Monthly Cost Download Allowance Contract Length More Information
Vodafone £3/month 250MB 30 days Show Tariff Information »
T-Mobile £7.50/month 1GB 30 days Show Tariff Information »
Vodafone £7.50/month 500MB 30 days Show Tariff Information »
Three £7.87/month 1GB 24 months Show Tariff Information »
T-Mobile £10/month 2GB 30 days Show Tariff Information »
Orange £10/month 500MB 18 months Show Tariff Information »
O2 £10.21/month 1GB 30 days Show Tariff Information »
Orange £12.50/month 500MB 30 days Show Tariff Information »
T-Mobile £15/month 5GB 30 days Show Tariff Information »
Orange £15/month 2GB 18 months Show Tariff Information »
Vodafone £15/month 2GB 30 days Show Tariff Information »
Three £15.99/month 15GB 24 months Show Tariff Information »
Three £15.99/month 5GB 30 days Show Tariff Information »
Orange £17.50/month 2GB 30 days Show Tariff Information »
Orange £25/month 5GB 18 months Show Tariff Information »
Orange £30/month 5GB 30 days Show Tariff Information »

Depending on the tariff that you choose, there may also be a small upfront charge for a dongle. If you’re opting for a hotspot, the upfront charge is likely to be higher.

Pay As You Go based on usage.

If you plan to use mobile broadband on an occasional basis only, it may be better to use it on a Pay As You Go basis. You can pay for data only when you need it: allowances can be purchased on a “per day”, “per week” or “per month” basis.

Network Cost Download Allowance More Information
T-Mobile £2/day 250MB, expires after a day Show Tariff Information »
O2 £2.04/day 200MB, expires after a day Show Tariff Information »
T-Mobile £7/week 500MB, expires after 7 days Show Tariff Information »
giffgaff £5/month 500MB, expires after 30 days Show Tariff Information »
Vodafone £5/month 250MB, expires after 30 days Show Tariff Information »
giffgaff £7.50/month 1GB, expires after 30 days Show Tariff Information »
O2 £10.21/month 1GB, expires after 30 days Show Tariff Information »
Three £10.49/month 1GB, expires after 30 days Show Tariff Information »
giffgaff £12.50/month 3GB, expires after 30 days Show Tariff Information »
T-Mobile £15/month 1GB, expires after 30 days Show Tariff Information »
O2 £15.32/month 2GB, expires after 30 days Show Tariff Information »
Three £20.49/quarter 3GB, expires after 3 months Show Tariff Information »
Three £70.49/year 12GB, expires after 12 months Show Tariff Information »

Note that giffgaff is a SIM-only network. If you choose to sign up with giffgaff, you’ll need to buy a dongle or hotspot separately. You can find unlocked dongles and unlocked hotspots on Amazon.co.uk.

How much data do I need?

data-binaryWith mobile broadband, it’s hard to say how much data you’ll need. This is because it strongly depends on how you use it: the devices that you connect to mobile broadband and the applications that you run on your computer.

If you’re using online radio, P2P file downloads and voice-over-IP services (e.g. Skype and Facetime), you should expect data consumption to be high. Video streaming sites such as iPlayer and YouTube will also consume a large amount of data. By sticking to basic web browsing and e-mail, data consumption will be much lower.

The following table shows what you could do with a 500MB or 1GB download allowance:

500MB corresponds to… 1GB corresponds to…
Basic webpages (mainly text) 5,000 10,000
Rich webpages (with multimedia, e.g. BBC) 1,500 3,000
Basic e-mails 500,000 1,000,000
Rich e-mails (with attachments) 1,000 2,000
Downloading/streaming music 100 songs 200 songs
Downloading/streaming video 1 hour 2 hours
Skype voice call 15 hours 30 hours
Skype video call 2 hours 4 hours
Listening to online radio 8 hours 16 hours

Source of estimates: O2 [1, 2]. Our testing found a Skype mobile voice call consumes around 0.55MB/minute (70kbps). Skype video call uses 4MB/minute (500kbps). Online radio calculation assumes 128kbps bitrate.

If you’re connecting a PC or laptop to a mobile broadband service, you should take particular care with automatic software updates. When you’re online, Windows will automatically download security updates. Applications such as Microsoft Office, Google Chrome, Firefox, Flash, Adobe Reader and Java will also download updates automatically. These software updates can use up a big chunk of your download allowance without you being aware.

For more information on download allowances and what they mean, see our in-depth guide to download limits.

What are coverage levels and download speeds like?

Mobile MastTo get a good experience with mobile broadband, you’ll need to be living in a 3G coverage area. Approximately 80% of the UK is covered by 3G.

Use the coverage checker tools provided by your mobile network to make sure you can get 3G:

With a normal 3G dongle or hotspot, you can expect download speeds of around 1.5Mbit/s. If your dongle or hotspot supports the latest HSPA+ technology, download speeds will be even higher: typically around 4Mbit/s.

Later this year, 4G technology will offer increased speeds of around 15Mbit/s. This will make mobile broadband competitive on speed with home broadband.

How many devices can get online with mobile broadband?

You can usually get up to 5 devices connected through mobile broadband. However, it depends on the connection method that you’re using for the mobile broadband service.

If you’re connecting via a USB dongle, this will normally allow just one device to get online (a PC, laptop or netbook). A USB dongle is usually much cheaper than a hotspot.

If you’re connecting via a mobile broadband hotspot, you can usually connect up to five devices simultaneously. This includes PCs, laptops, tablets, game consoles, MP3 players and e-book readers. The hotspot connection method is more flexible and is compatible with any wi-fi enabled device. However, you’ll need to pay more for the hotspot than you would for a USB dongle.

Both connection methods are supported by the UK’s major mobile broadband services:

Network USB Dongle (1 device) Mobile Broadband Hotspot (5 devices)
Orange Orange USB Dongle Orange Mobile Wi-Fi Dongle
O2 O2 Dongle O2 Pocket Hotspot
Three Standard Dongle / Premium Dongle Three MiFi
T-Mobile Mobile Broadband USB Stick T-Mobile Wireless Pointer
Vodafone Vodafone Dongle Vodafone Mobile Wi-Fi

When you’re using a hotspot and sharing a mobile broadband connection between multiple devices, data consumption will be higher. Download speeds may also be slower as all of your devices will be sharing the same amount of bandwidth.

If you’re connecting through a USB dongle, it’s possible to share your mobile broadband service with other devices using an application on your PC. You’ll need a PC or laptop with the facility for “internet connection sharing”. For Windows 7 users, this can be achieved using the Virtual Router or Connectify applications.

How does mobile broadband differ from home broadband?

Home broadband and mobile broadband are essentially the same thing: they’re both services that provide you with access to the internet. The main difference is the connection method: home broadband uses a phone line (ADSL or cable) whereas mobile broadband uses mobile networks (typically 3G).

The benefits of mobile broadband are:

  • Portable. Whereas home broadband is tied to a single address, mobile broadband can be used from anywhere. This includes when you’re out and about (e.g. in public places) and when you’re travelling (e.g. in the car or on the train). The biggest benefit of mobile broadband is its portability and convenience: simply plug in a dongle and you’re ready to go. There’s no need to faff about with wi-fi hotspots, registration forms and additional credit card payments. Just plug in and go. Mobile broadband also offers greater security compared to public wi-fi hotspots. All data is encrypted before it gets sent over mobile broadband. In contrast, many wi-fi hotspots are unencrypted and others can potentially intercept your information.
  • Pay based only on what you use. With mobile broadband, it’s possible to pay as you go. You can get online without any contracts: simply pay for the amount of data that you use. With home broadband, it’s necessary to have a contract. giffgaff tends to offer some of the lowest prices for Pay As You Go mobile broadband: just £5 for 500MB or £7.50 for 1GB. You can get a free SIM card here.

The benefits of home broadband are:

  • ADSL InternetLarger download allowances. For the majority of mobile broadband connections, there’s a fairly small download allowance. Depending on the tariff that you choose, download allowances can range from 500MB (available from £5/month) to 15GB (available from £15.99/month). These allowances should suffice for basic web browsing and e-mail but for multimedia streaming (e.g. YouTube, iPlayer and online radio) you’ll need a larger download allowance. With home broadband, it’s possible to get unlimited downloads for as little as £5/month though you’ll also need to pay landline rental.
  • Faster download speeds. Downloads are much faster on home broadband. On a home broadband connection, you can expect a typical download speed of 12Mbit/s. Even faster downloads (up to 100Mbit/s) are available to consumers who pay for a cable or fibre connection. On 3G mobile broadband, you can expect download speeds of around 2Mbit/s. Even with the latest 4G technologies, download speeds are unlikely to go higher than 15Mbit/s on mobile broadband.
  • Faster response times. Latency refers to the amount of time it takes for data to be transmitted the internet and for a response to be received. It can be thought of as the “response time” of your internet connection. On a home broadband connection, the typical response time is about 20 milliseconds (20ms). This is 1/50th of a second. For a mobile broadband connection, you can expect response times of at least 100 milliseconds (1/10th of a second). Whilst the difference is only measured in just fractions of a second, it can be significant for activities like online gaming.

Can I replace my home broadband connection with mobile broadband?

Due to the cost of landline rental, some consumers have looked into replacing their home broadband connection with a mobile broadband connection. This is called “cord cutting”. In our opinion, most consumers should keep their home broadband connection. Home broadband is essential for sharing photos, downloading software updates, watching TV online (iPlayer, YouTube, etc.) and listening to online radio. Whilst these activities are possible on mobile broadband, the experience is less reliable and you’re likely to use up your download allowance very quickly.

If you’re intent on cord cutting and using mobile broadband as your sole connection to the internet, we recommend The One Plan from Three. Starting from £25/month, The One Plan provides 2000 cross-network minutes, 5000 Three-to-Three minutes, 5000 texts and all-you-can-eat internet (no download limits). Best of all, Three allows you to tether on The One Plan. You can use this feature to provide mobile broadband to 5 devices. From later this year, Three customers will also have access to 4G at no extra charge.

What is tethering?

TetheringTethering is an alternative way to get mobile broadband. Instead of paying a separate subscription for mobile broadband, you can share the mobile internet connection from your phone. This is good for very occasional usage but it can also have its pitfalls. As you’ll be using the data allowance from your smartphone plan, it’s possible that you’ll use up the data allowance very quickly (data consumption on mobile broadband is usually much higher than on a smartphone). If this happens, you won’t be able to access the internet from your phone until the next billing month. Alternatively, you may need to pay additional data charges.

Not all mobile networks allow you to tether. For this reason, you should check on your mobile network’s policy:

  • EE: Tethering is permitted on all plans. This is counted towards your normal download limit.
  • giffgaff: Tethering is permitted on gigabag packages and on the £10 goodybag. You cannot tether on goodybags with unlimited data.
  • O2: Tethering is permitted on all Pay Monthly plans since April 2011. This is counted towards your normal download allowance.
  • Orange: Tethering is permitted on some Pay Monthly plans.
  • T-Mobile: T-Mobile does not allow you to tether on The Full Monty. The “Basic internet” and “Standard internet” tariffs also exclude tethering.
  • Three: Tethering is permitted on The One Plan. This is our “top pick” for tethering as The One Plan includes unlimited downloads (all-you-can-eat data). You can get it from £25/month. Tethering is prohibited on the Essential Internet, Ultimate Internet and Pay As You Go tariffs.
  • Vodafone: Vodafone allows tethering on all plans with inclusive internet. Data consumption will be counted towards your usual download limit.

For more information, see our full article on tethering.

Is mobile broadband different from wi-fi?

When you’re away from home, an alternative way of getting online is through wi-fi hotspots. Wi-fi is often provided free of charge in pubs, coffee shops and fast food restaurants. You can also find wi-fi in some tube stations, hotels and train stations. Occasionally, there may be a charge to use a wi-fi hotspot.

The disadvantage of wi-fi is that it has a very limited range. Wi-fi networks cover an area that’s measured in tens of meters: that could mean sitting in a certain part of a coffee shop just to get signal. It can often be time-consuming to connect to a wi-fi network and the download speeds that you experience can be hit-and-miss (it depends on the network). Another disadvantage of wi-fi is poor security: information is usually transmitted without any encryption. This can allow third-parties to intercept your private data.

The benefits of mobile broadband are ubiquity and ease of use. You can get online from anywhere in the UK: that includes when you’re travelling in a car or on a train. There’s better security and no need to worry about registering or paying to use a wi-fi network.

Where can I find out more?

Refer to your mobile operator’s website to find out more on their mobile broadband service:

    

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About Ken

Ken Lo

I'm a freelance writer specialising in mobile technology. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005 with the aim of demystifying mobile technology for the rest of us.

Before writing about mobile technology, my background was in space & atmospheric physics. I have also worked in software development. Nowadays, I help companies to explain mobile technology to their customers. Please check out my portfolio or get in touch for more information. I'm also on Google+.

Your Comments

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 7 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  1. Dave said:

    Hi Ken … is there a difference between a data sim and regular voice sim … for example if I had a regular voice sim with 1gb data / month could I use it in a mifi device and use it as a wifi hotspot. Effectively using it only as a data sim.
    Many thanks

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Dave,

      There aren't really any differences between data and voice SIMs – they both work in the same way (although the Access Point Name settings may differ). However, it may be against the Terms Of Use of your voice SIM to use it in a MiFi device.

      Hope this helps,

      Ken

  2. Derek said:

    I use Vodafone pay as you go for occasional use, such as when I am on the road. Although it is £15/Gb, its big advantage for someone like me is that the money that one pumps the sim up with does not disappear at the end of the month. Provided a connection is made once in every six months (no surfing required, just plug it in and wait until it acquires an IP address), the credit does not run out. All the other providers' PAYG plans last only 30 days every time one pumps the card up.

  3. Vince said:

    This is an interesting read today http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-13544197

  4. Vince said:

    Hi Ken, i regularly read your posts with great interest.

    Could you please do a similar table which includes Pay As You Go tariffs ?

    Thanks

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Vince,

      Thanks for the suggestion! This is something we will look into!

      Many thanks,

      Ken

  5. Winter said:

    Hi Ken, Had been thinking about getting Orange mobile broadband because they had some nice big data allowances including an unlimited* (20GB) on the Panther £35.
    However, just been looking on their website and Panther seems to have completely vanished!? Has it really gone or do my eyes need testing again? Can only see Racoon and Dolphin on there. Admittedly I haven't been to the Orange site in quite some time so perhaps this is old news, but it's the first I've noticed this.
    Also Dolphin seems rather rubbish now, I seem to recall them having 3GB for £15. Now you only get 1GB anytime + 1GB quiet time for £15, and what happened to happy hour? I don't see that mentioned any more either.
    Seems O2 aren't the only ones being tight with data allowances.
    I don't have a landline so tend to rely heavily on mobile phone and mobile broadband for all my communications.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Winter,

      Unfortunately the mobile networks have been cutting the mobile broadband tariffs with high usage allowances as they tend not to be so profitable. I'm sorry I can't give you a specific answer regarding Orange Panther but it is quite possible it has been withdrawn.

      It's worth looking at Three (see link in the article above) who are offering 15GB for £15.99 per month. This might be a good alternative to the Orange tariff and appears a bit cheaper too.

      Ken

  6. g said:

    hi i have a pay as you go SIM, will it work in my dongle provided i top up using an add-on ? Thanks !

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