Which mobile broadband is right for you?
Back in 2007 no one had heard of mobile broadband. Now suddenly it’s the biggest thing since the mobile phone – magazine covers, billboards, even Peter Jones from Dragons’ Den has been singing its praises. But there’s still an awful lot of confusion about what exactly mobile broadband is and how on earth to go about choosing a contract from the dazzling array available. What’s worse, mobile broadband contracts appear like mobile phone contracts, but contain all the vagueness and complexity of traditional home broadband contracts.
So, here’s a plain-English guide to mobile broadband and how to go about picking the right deal for you.
Mobile broadband is an umbrella term for technology which allows you to access the internet at broadband speeds on the move. In the main, most people plug their laptop into a broadband modem at home to access the internet. More modern people run their home broadband through a wireless router (now free with most home broadband contracts) which allows you to access broadband wirelessly anywhere in your house. Mobile broadband takes this one step further and allows you to access the internet on your laptop anywhere – on the bus, in the pub, at work.
It does this by allowing your laptop to use the 3G mobile phone network to send and receive data. This is in contrast to traditional home broadband which is delivered to your house by underground wires and cables.
Your mobile broadband supplier will most likely supply you with a dongle, which is a small USB stick which contains a SIM card and plugs into your laptop. It is the dongle which acts as an aerial or modem and allows your laptop to send and receive data via the 3G mobile phone networks.
Choosing a dongle is the equivalent of choosing a mobile phone handset. Most people don’t really mind what dongle they get so long as it’s free and works. Other people will care about the design and functionality of their dongle and want to put a little more time, effort and possibly money into choosing a dongle. If you’re that kind of person, prepared to be disappointed; most networks only have two dongles – a basic and an enhanced version – which both look the same. The difference is often that better dongles also double up as memory sticks. Each dongle comes with it’s own, unique mobile telephone number.
If you really care about looks, then 3 Mobile is the only mobile broadband provider which really goes to town on its dongle designs.
The single most important question when choosing a mobile broadband contract is how much will you use it? Pricing for nearly all dongles is based on monthly usage (or pay-as-you-go usage). It’s the equivalent of ‘inclusive minutes’ on a mobile phone, with the big difference that mobile broadband usage is measured in Gigabytes (GB), which means nothing to most people.
The standard usage ‘increments’ you get to choose between are 1GB (light), 3GB (average), 5GB (heavy), 10GB+ (monster). Virgin Mobile illustrates a 3GB download allowance as the following (and a little bit more besides):
- 2,000 emails
- 100 hours of web surfing
- 200 music tracks
- 100 two minute videos
It’s really not easy to pick how much usage you want to pay for. A wise tip would be to err on the side of caution, as penalties for exceeding your download limit can be punitive. It’s worth noting that T-Mobile don’t enforce fines for overrunning, they send you letters and (as a last resort) limit your service. This approach is slightly less scary if you’re really worried about exceeding your limits. With 3G Mobile, you are unable to carry forward any unused capacity to the next month so be careful how much you buy.
Most mobile broadband networks will give you a free laptop with your mobile broadband subscription if you’re willing in return to commit to a longer contract (normally 24 months) and pay a little more a month (normally £25+). These free laptop deals are proving extremely popular – in fact more people get mobile broadband this way than take out a plain old dongle-only contract.
These deals can represent genuine consumer value if you’re laptop needs replacing anyway (or you don’t have one at all), but do note that the total contract cost does mean that the laptop wasn’t exactly free.
Read our laptop buying guide first.
Speeds and coverage
Mobile broadband speeds are currently advertised at (up to) anywhere between 1.8Mb and 7.2Mb, which makes mobile broadband theoretically as fast as home broadband. Do prepare to be disappointed, though. Unless you stand under a mobile phone mast, your speed will vary wildly – a fact which is particularly noticeable on a train journey. Broadband speed checkers suggest an ‘average’ speed of around 1Mb, and further suggest that there’s not much to choose between the various mobile broadband providers.
It always pays to shop around first. Free internet comparison websites such as Mobile Broadband Genie contain up-to-date listings and price and package data from all the mobile broadband providers, and can help to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Mobile broadband deals start from about £15 per month – which is the standard, mass-market package for the ‘average’ user. From there upwards you pay more for extra download allowance, better dongle, better laptop, and shorter contract length. You can also get mobile broadband as a pay-as-you-go product from T-Mobile or 3 Mobile, where you pay up-front for the dongle then just top up the download credits as you go (this can be more economical for occasional users).