Mobile broadband gives you access to the internet using 4G mobile network coverage on your laptop and tablet.
Mobile broadband has been growing in popularity as another way to get your devices connected to the internet.
Making use of the same 4G technology that connects your smartphone to the internet, it can give other devices like your laptop and tablet access to high-speed internet whilst you’re on the go. It can occasionally also be used as a replacement for home broadband, giving faster set-up and greater flexibility.
In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about mobile broadband in the UK. We’ll start by looking at how you can access mobile broadband and at the various connection methods available to you including tethering, USB dongles, portable wi-fi and using a SIM card slot. We’ll then discuss the different providers you can use in the UK, before comparing it to home broadband and looking at mobile broadband coverage.
How To Access Mobile Broadband
There are numerous different ways of accessing mobile broadband on your laptop, tablet or other devices. For most people, the easiest way of doing this will be to tether from your smartphone, providing your mobile network allows it and providing you have enough data on your price plan. This will allow you to get your other devices connected on-the-move, with it taking just a matter of seconds to set up a portable wi-fi hotspot.
For a more long-term solution which affords you a bit of added flexibility (e.g. using mobile broadband without your smartphone or as a full-on replacement for home broadband), you can also consider having a dedicated mobile broadband connection. This will require you to have a USB dongle or portable wi-fi hotspot device. Alternatively, you could also use a 3G or 4G tablet with a built-in SIM card slot.
For more information, read on for a full side-by-side comparison of the different ways of accessing mobile broadband.
Tethering vs Dedicated Mobile Broadband
When choosing a method of accessing mobile broadband, the first thing to consider is whether you’d like to tether from a smartphone, or whether you’d like a fully untethered and independent mobile broadband connection.
For occasional usage whilst you’re on-the-go, tethering is normally the fastest and simplest way to get your devices online. Providing your mobile network allows it, simply enable the “portable wi-fi hotspot” feature on your smartphone to share a 3G/4G internet connection with your other devices. This will use the regular data allowance from your mobile phone price plan, so there’s usually no additional charge providing you have enough data available.
If you’re a regular user of tethering on your smartphone, we recommend choosing a price plan with more data. The following table shows mobile price plans with at least 20GB of tetherable data each month:
The downside of using tethering is your mobile broadband connection will be linked to a single device, your smartphone. Having an independent and dedicated separate mobile broadband connection can afford you greater flexibility, and the ability to access mobile broadband separately from your smartphone.
The following table summarises the key differences between tethering via your smartphone and having a dedicated mobile broadband connection:
|Tethering Via Your Smartphone||Dedicated Mobile Broadband|
|Perfect for:||Occasional mobile broadband usage, often whilst you’re on-the-go (e.g. on your daily commute into work).||Regular mobile broadband usage, independent of a smartphone (e.g. for multiple people, multiple devices or as a home broadband replacement)|
|Requires a separate price plan?||No, simply share the data allowance from your existing mobile phone price plan.||Yes, requires a separate mobile broadband price plan (Pay Monthly or Pay As You Go).|
|Requires new hardware?||No, use your existing smartphone as the portable wi-fi hotspot.||Yes, unless your device already has built-in mobile connectivity. Typically, you’ll need to buy a mobile wi-fi hotspot (“MiFi”) or USB dongle.|
|Needs mobile phone in proximity?||Yes, your mobile phone needs to be in close proximity for other devices to use the mobile broadband connection.||No, your devices are “untethered” from your smartphone and can thus be used totally independently.|
USB Dongle vs Portable Hotspot vs SIM Slot
If you choose to go for a dedicated mobile broadband connection, there are three ways through which you’re able to use this:
- By plugging in a USB dongle to your laptop.
- By using a portable wi-fi hotspot device (more commonly known as a “MiFi”).
- By using the built-in SIM card slot in a 4G-enabled device (typically, on a 4G tablet).
The most appropriate method will depend on the type of device you want to use mobile broadband on, as well as the number of devices you want to use at one time.
The cheapest way to get a single laptop connected to mobile broadband is using a USB dongle, which is available for around £20. A portable wi-fi hotspot is a little more expensive, but allows you to connect multiple devices (often up to 10 devices or more at one time). Meanwhile, if you have a 4G-ready tablet, you may be able to use the built-in SIM card slot.
The following table summarises the key differences between the three connection methods:
|USB Dongle||Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot (MiFi)||SIM Card Slot|
|Device Compatibility||Laptops with a spare USB port for the dongle.||Any device that supports wi-fi connectivity.||Devices with a built-in SIM card slot (e.g. 4G tablets).|
|Number of Devices
||1||Multiple (often 10+)||1|
|Requires Charging?||No, the USB dongle is powered by your laptop.||Yes, the hotspot needs to be charged.||No, your device just needs to be charged as normal.|
|Cost||Generally cheapest (less than £20).||More expensive (approx £60 to £100 on Pay As You Go).||Most expensive (approx £100 more for 4G-ready tablet)|
Mobile Broadband in the UK
You can get mobile broadband from multiple different providers in the UK:
If you have a BT Mobile SIM card in your smartphone, you can tether through your mobile phone without any restrictions.
If you’d like a dedicated mobile broadband connection that’s separate from your smartphone, BT offers a 4G portable wi-fi hotspot (the BT “4G Mini-Hub”), a number of 4G-ready tablets and 4G data-only SIM cards. You’ll need to sign either a 12-month or 24-month contract to get mobile broadband on BT.
BT uses EE as its network coverage provider, so customers with BT Mobile Broadband will get the same coverage as customers on EE.
As well as offering standalone mobile broadband packages, BT also has a “converged product” called BT Plus where you’ll get home broadband and mobile broadband combined together in one package.
Tariff Information: BT Mobile Website
EE offers a selection of standalone mobile broadband price plans, including portable wi-fi hotspots, 4G-ready tablets and mobile broadband SIM cards. These are available on both a Pay Monthly and Pay As You Go basis.
If you’d like to tether from your existing smartphone on EE, this is possible on all EE mobile phone price plans.
Tariff Information: EE Website
O2 offers a range of mobile broadband packages on Pay Monthly and Pay As You Go. These include standalone USB dongles, pocket wi-fi hotspots and 4G-ready tablets. Devices are available to buy on either a 24 month or 36 month payment plan. You can see a full list of available mobile broadband price plans here.
If you have an O2 price plan for your mobile phone, you can also tether from it without any restrictions.
Tariff Information: O2 Website
Three offers a wide variety of mobile broadband price plans, both on Pay Monthly and Pay As You Go. Notably, they have a number of Pay As You Go price plans that give you more flexibility on when and how to use your data (e.g. £60 for 24GB of data lasting for up to 24 months, or the Data Reward SIM card which includes 200MB of free data every month).
As well as the normal selection of portable MiFis and 4G-ready tablets, Three also has a HomeFi service which can act as a potential replacement for your home broadband connection. It starts from £23/month with 40GB of data and allows you to use mobile broadband on up to 32 devices at one time.
Customers with a mobile phone price plan from Three can also tether using their smartphone allowance without any restrictions.
Tariff Information: Three Website
If you have a Virgin Mobile SIM card in your mobile phone, you can tether and share your mobile broadband connection with other devices.
If you’re looking for a dedicated mobile broadband connection, there’s a mobile wi-fi hotspot offering available on Virgin from £5/month. You’ll need to sign a Pay Monthly contract to get set up on mobile broadband (it’s currently £5 for 1GB data, £8 for 2GB data, £12 for 5GB data and £20 for 10GB data per month).
Virgin uses EE as its network coverage provider, so customers on Virgin Mobile Broadband will get the same coverage as customers on EE.
Tariff Information: Virgin Media Website
Vodafone offers a number of dedicated mobile broadband packages on a Pay Monthly contract. This includes Vodafone USB data dongles, a Mi-Fi for up to 10 devices, 4G-ready tablets and a number of data-only SIM cards.
You can also tether from your mobile phone if you’re using a Vodafone price plan.
Tariff Information: Vodafone Website
Mobile Broadband VS Home Broadband
Mobile broadband can sometimes be used as a substitute for fixed home broadband (broadband that’s delivered through a phone line or cable). It can be a good option for people who’ve recently moved home, who want the added flexibility of a mobile connection or who are unable to get fixed broadband where they live.
The download speeds on a 4G connection are often comparable, or even better, than what is available on fixed home broadband. The downside however, is that mobile broadband plans tend to be more expensive, and have a monthly download limit (most fixed home broadband plans now offer unlimited data). This can be an issue if you watch lots of video online through services like BBC iPlayer, Netflix and YouTube (especially so if you’re watching in high-definition). Mobile broadband also offers slower response times (higher ping and latency) so it isn’t ideal for things like fast-paced online gaming.
If you’d like to use mobile broadband as a replacement for fixed home broadband, we recommend investigating Three’s HomeFi plans. The HomeFi offers 4G mobile broadband at a download speed of up to 150Mbit/s, and supports up to 32 devices at a given time. It’s possible to get 40GB of data for £24/month (with no upfront cost on a 12-month contract, or £60 on a 1-month rolling contract).
If you live in Central London or Swindon, you can also consider Relish which offers unlimited 4G mobile broadband from £22/month.
5G Mobile Broadband
Today, most mobile broadband connections use 4G technology, falling back to 3G where there’s no 4G coverage available. Whilst 4G technology can already match fibre broadband in terms of download speed, it tends to be more expensive and suffers from limited network capacity and slower response times.
In 2019, the UK’s first 5G mobile networks are due to launch on a trial basis. One of the key new technologies this is likely to enable is 5G Fixed Wireless Access (or 5G FWA for short). 5G FWA will provide a major upgrade for mobile broadband, giving increased network capacity, higher download speeds (1Gbit/s and more) and lower response times. It is likely to make mobile broadband an even better alternative to fixed home broadband. We may even see mobile broadband become the predominant connection method for many people at home.
There are currently four mobile networks in the UK which build and maintain their a mobile broadband network. These four companies are EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. Each of them licenses spectrum from the Government and maintains their own network of 3G and 4G masts across the country.
As of 2018, the four networks each offer about 99% population coverage on 4G. However, coverage still varies by network on an area-by-area basis, so it’s worth checking this online before signing up to a given network. To do this, select your mobile network’s logo to see a coverage map for your area:
BT and Virgin offer their mobile broadband service using coverage from the EE network. For more information, see our in-depth guide to mobile coverage in the UK.