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What is Mobile Broadband? Explained in simple terms

By Jeff Baker on 16th March 2016

For a number of years now, most UK consumers have been able to connect to a broadband internet connection in their own home, either by actually plugging in a wire between their computer and the phone jack or by using a wireless connection.  For individuals who would like to be able to access the internet whilst out and about, mobile broadband is now widely available; but what is mobile broadband, actually, and how do you use it?

What is mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband is a wireless technology that allows you to connect a mobile device such as your smartphone or tablet to a broadband internet connection wirelessly through a mobile phone network. Many newer devices, including most laptops, now come equipped with the technology to allow this access built into them, and for those that don’t the capability can usually be added by using a small device that plugs into the USB port of your device called a mobile broadband “dongle”. Other ways to add mobile broadband to a device include data cards, or SIMS, which insert directly into the device, or a Mi-Fi unit which can connect up to ten gadgets at once. But the dongle is the most prevalent.

What is mobile broadband? Explained in simple terms

A mobile dongle can be bought in any technology or mobile phone store – such as a Three shop – on the high street. In the UK, all the major mobile phone operators, including 3 Mobile, offer mobile broadband services. One thing to double check is that your choice of mobile broadband dongle will work with your device; not every dongle will work with a Mac operating system, for example, though recent Windows operating systems should all be fine.

How do I set up mobile broadband? 

Once you have a mobile broadband enabled device or a 4G or 3G phone, connecting to mobile broadband is very simple, and is usually accomplished by clicking on the network icon on your laptop or 4G/3G phone. The first time you set the connection up you will probably have to activate your account with a subscriber number and/or password, but your service provider will give you these and full instructions on how to get access.

What is coverage like?

Mobile broadband uses the country-wide 3G and gorwing 4G mobile networks to get you access to the internet. In theory, coverage should be complete across the country, especially on 3G, but in practice this isn’t yet the case. There are still a few spots, often in the countryside, where mobile broadband across both the 3G and 4G network isn’t available yet, so it is worth entering your postcode into a service checker before you enter into a contract – most service providers offer these on their websites. Over time, coverage is set to improve, so keep an eye on the coverage maps if you find that at present you live somewhere that doesn’t have good mobile broadband coverage.

What are the advantages of mobile broadband?

There are many benefits to having mobile broadband access. It offers a very easy to use access technology that allows almost instant connectivity, and coverage is pretty widespread across the country. The benefits of a dongle include the ability to carry your internet access around in your pocket or in a computer bag for use whenever it is required.

What is mobile broadband? Explained in simple terms

Many providers offer a one-month rolling contract, so you can get a good monthly contract price and download deal but still have the flexibility of being able to change deals with only a month’s notice. Mobile broadband is the perfect solution for business travellers who spend a lot of time on trains, or people who live in temporary accommodation for some of the year such as students, who may not want to spend out on expensive yearly home-based internet connections.

What else should I be aware of?

There are a few points to note about the availability and usage of mobile broadband; it isn’t exactly the same experience as using your home wireless internet access. The speed of internet access across a mobile broadband network will generally be slower than the speed you might be used to across a home network, especially in areas where only 3G is available.

Another thing to be careful of is the fact that as you move around, the strength of your 3G or 4G signal will change, so if you are working on the move using mobile broadband – on a train, for example – you may find that the connection dips in and out, so keep saving your work. Interestingly, mobile broadband coverage does not mirror the ordinary mobile phone connection; just because your phone works fine in your living room or on the train to work does not mean a mobile broadband connection from the same provider will do so. This means that it is always worth checking on the coverage levels for wherever you plan to use the mobile broadband connection on a frequent basis.

Mobile broadband users also need to keep a watchful eye on their level of use, as allowances are limited and it's not generally recommended for downloading videos or large apps, for example. How much you need will entirely depend on how you plan to use the internet; for an average user who plans to use the service as a supplement to a home network, a few GB a month should be fine; one hour of web browsing should only use up somewhere between 2 and 25 MB, so a plan that gives just 1 GB a month would still allow an hour of web browsing every day. 

If you are interested in subscribing to mobile broadband, it is worth talking to your home broadband provider, as they might do a bundled subscription combining home and mobile services.  Otherwise, there is a wide range of options at many price points available on the high street, including at your local 3 store.

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