Mobile broadband buyers' guide

There are a number of things to consider before buying a mobile broadband package. Which type is right for you? Who provides it? And how do you find the right package to suit you? This guide will tell you everything you’ll ever need to know about 3G broadband so you can make all the right choices.

What is it?

Mobile broadband is the name given to Internet access packages that are transmitted across the 3G phone network instead of across telephone wires or fibre optic cables.

When you sign up you’ll be given a specific data allowance that you can use within a given time limit, most commonly 1-5GB in a month. Many packages also let you access Wi-Fi hotspots in public places such as airports, hotels and motorway service stations. By using a hotspot you’ll be able to browse online without reducing your 3G usage allowance.

Is it right for me?

If you’re looking for a reliable and cost-effective way to browse the Internet on a portable device then yes, 3G broadband has a lot to offer. It comes with very reasonable connection speeds up to 7.2Mbps and comes with a range of payment options, contract lengths and download allowances to suit any needs and any budget.

Ideally it should probably be viewed as a back-up service. It’s unlikely that it would be fast enough or allow you to download enough to be your only means of web access but for a truly portable broadband service that can be used across much of the country it has a lot to offer.

Mobile Broadband Providers

Almost every single mobile phone operator in the country offers at least one such service, including 3, T-Mobile and Vodafone. There are numerous different packages and deals to be had so you may like to start by comparing all of the different services that are on offer.

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How does it work?

This type broadband is transmitted across the third generation (3G) mobile phone network. To receive it you will need special equipment that will be supplied by your chosen provider.

The equipment you will receive will depend upon the type of service you’re signing up for with most packages using a simple plug-and-play USB device called a dongle to connect to the network. Dongles look like a USB memory stick and contain a SIM card that allows you to connect to your chosen mobile ISP.

Mobile broadband dongles

When you sign up for a package you will normally get a “dongle”. This usually takes the form of a simple plug-and-play USB device that looks almost identical to a memory stick. All you need to do is plug the dongle into a spare USB port on your PC or laptop and follow the simple instructions that came with it. You’ll then be able to enjoy broadband at speeds up to 7.2Mpbs, subject to coverage and network activity.

Some other hardware works slightly differently. For example, 3 MiFi comes with a dongle that does not need to be physically connected to a device. Instead MiFi works by creating a localised Wi-Fi hotspot through which you can access the web on any Wi-Fi compatible device. This makes MiFi ideal for users of the iPad, iPod Touch or other Wi-Fi device that does not have a USB port. Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone offer other similar mobile wireless hotspot dongles.

Other services are SIM only and are intended for 3G-ready devices into which a SIM card can be directly inserted such as an iPad or some types of laptop or netbook.

What are my options?

Just as with mobile phones there are a number of options when selecting the right package. What distinguishes the different packs from each other are the monthly download allowances and the types of contract involved.

When comparing packages to find the best one for you it’s very important to consider what you’ll be using it for, how often you’ll be using it and where you’ll be using it.

Pay monthly mobile broadband

If you’ll be using your 3G service every day then you really should give very serious consideration to a pay monthly mobile package. Doing so will give you the option to choose larger download allowances and any extra usage you need to make beyond this limit will not cost you too much per additional GB.

Contract lengths can be as short as 1 month and as long as 18 months. As a rule of thumb, the longer the contract you commit to the lower your one-off fee will be.

Compare pay monthly mobile broadband »

Mobile broadband pay as you go

If you're going to be using it less frequently then a Pay-As-You-Go package is probably right for you. You won’t be able to download large amounts of data as cheaply as with a contract but you won’t have to pay for an ongoing service that you won’t be using every day.

Once you have your dongle you'll need to top it up in the same way as a PAYG mobile phone, though instead of minutes you will pay for a usage allowance, usually on a gigabyte-by-gigabyte basis.

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Pay up front mobile broadband

With a pay up front package you’ll get a dongle that is pre-loaded with a specific amount of usage, usually 1GB, although you can opt for a dongle that comes preloaded with a 12GB data allowance that can be used at any time within a 12 month period. Once you’ve used up the included data allowance you can purchase more credit to top-up your dongle as with Pay-As-You-Go broadband.

How fast is it?

Mobile is not as fast as most home broadband packages but it is still a lot faster than dial-up and certainly fast enough to be considered true broadband.

The fastest mobile packages on offer in the UK currently have a maximum download speed of 7.2Mbps. Speeds in this range are more than enough to let you browse the web, use Facebook and even to download music from online stores like iTunes but it would not be fast enough to download movies in any reasonable amount of time, especially those in High Definition.

What are the download limits?

The different packages come with a range of download allowances. Most providers offer a number of basic packages that allow you to download between 1GB and 5GB each month, while others allow larger data transfers over a longer timescale such as 12GB at any time over a 12 month period.

Is it expensive?

No, it isn’t. As with anything else it comes down to selecting the right package to suit your needs.

If you are going to be using it a lot then make sure you sign up for a package that will let you do so without incurring any excess charges. Conversely if you’re going to be using it infrequently then a PAYG dongle will let you dip into the web when you need to, and at a very reasonable price.

So to make sure you get the right deal consider how often you’ll be using the service, and how data intensive your online activity will be. Then simply compare packages until you find one with the level of service you need for the lowest possible price.

Compare mobile broadband packages »

Will it work with my computer?

Some dongles are not compatible with all operating systems, although if you’re using a Windows PC or Mac then you shouldn’t have any problems at all.

If your computer or mobile device uses any other operating system you may want to check with your chosen supplier if they are aware of any compatibility issues, or opt for a MiFi-type service that doesn’t rely on using a dongle that is physically connected to your device.

Mobile broadband for Linux

If you’re looking for mobile broadband for netbooks, especially those that use a Linux-based operating system you will probably find it best to opt for a 3 Broadband type MiFi device. This will eliminate any compatibility issues between your device and the dongle as with this type a localised Wi-Fi hotspot is created that your Linux device should have no problem connecting to whereas a standard USB dongle would probably not work with your device.

Does it work everywhere?

Coverage varies greatly across the country. To receive it you’ll need to be near to a 3G phone mast. The greater the distance between you and the mast the weaker the signal will become up to a point where internet access is no longer possible.

As a rule the more densely populated an area is the better your chances are of being able to use 3G broadband without any problems. Other factors can impair your online experience such as the type of building you are in, which floor of the building you are on, how close you are to a window and how many other people in the vicinity are active on the 3G network at any given time.

Compare packages

Now that you’ve got all the facts about mobile you should be in a position to find the right package to suit you. Bear in mind how often you’ll need to use the service and how data intensive your activities are likely to be – a low monthly download allowance will be fine if you just want to use Facebook or email but not so good if you’ll be frequently streaming music and video.

By following the link below we can show you a breakdown of all the latest and best mobile packages and deals that you have to choose from. Then, once you’ve found the right one for you, just click “Get Deal” to the right of your chosen package. You’ll then be transferred straight to your chosen provider’s site where you can sign up securely in a matter of minutes.

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