What is mobile broadband?

6 min Read Published: 30 Apr 2024

What is mobile broadband?Mobile broadband is a type of internet connection that uses 3G, 4G and 5G mobile signals, powerful enough to provide a stable internet connection for homes and businesses. Much like with a smartphone, you use a SIM card-enabled device to connect to the mobile network. Mobile broadband can be a viable alternative to traditional, fixed-line broadband for many households, even though it is still a developing technology.

In this article we will explain the basics of how mobile broadband works, the different types currently available on the market and the pros and cons of using it to connect your devices to the internet. This information will help you work out if mobile broadband is the right type of internet connection for your household.

How does mobile broadband work?

Mobile broadband uses the same technology that connects your smartphone to the internet when you are out and about. Depending on where you are in the country, your device will access 3G, 4G or 5G data networks.

In order to connect your device you can use either a USB dongle, a mobile broadband router or directly, by putting the SIM card into your tablet or laptop. The best option for you will depend on your provider, the data plan you choose and the device you are trying to connect. Here are the basics of each option:

Mobile broadband routers This will give you an experience close to using traditional, fixed-line broadband. You put the SIM card in the router, plug it into your mains and connect your devices to the router through the Wi-Fi.
MiFi A MiFi functions much like a router, except that it is battery powered and can connect to fewer devices at once. It is designed to be pocket size and portable in order to function as an alternative to using your phone’s mobile hotspot.
Data SIM card Some newer tablets and laptops will be able to connect to the internet through the mobile network directly if you insert a data SIM. You can buy data-only SIMs – that do not come with a calls or texts package – either individually or as part of a bundle with a new device.
Data dongle A data dongle plugs into the USB port of your laptop or computer and connects it to the mobile network. It will only connect one device at a time, but is portable and easy to use.

When would you need mobile broadband?

You may find that mobile broadband is a useful alternative to fixed-line broadband for your household, or a handy tool for when you are out and about. If it is available in your area, you should be able to use it as you would a traditional broadband connection. However, some features of mobile broadband mean it would be especially useful to specific scenarios.

1.) Living in a short-term let

Broadband can be tricky to manage for renters, especially if you do not know how long you will be living somewhere, or only plan to be there for a short period of time. Mobile broadband can provide a flexible alternative to fixed-line broadband, plus you can take it with you when you move, as long as where you are going is in the coverage area. Additionally, setting up mobile broadband does not require any cables to be run or holes to be drilled, which some landlords may demand be removed when you move out. No contract broadband may also be a good fit – find out more by reading our article ‘What is no-contract broadband?’.

2.) Living in a rural area

Some more rural locations in the UK may offer poor broadband connections because of a lack of fibre infrastructure. However, if you have a 4G phone signal, you can likely get an internet connection that is faster than standard broadband through a mobile router. We explain how to find out what broadband is available in your area in our article ‘Check broadband speed in your new area’.

Finding a top broadband deal can be tricky if you live in a particularly remote area. We have more information in our article 'How to get fast rural broadband in the UK'.

3.) Travelling frequently

If you are constantly on the move around the UK, it might make more practical sense to enable your laptop or tablet to connect to the internet directly than have a home broadband package. A big advantage of mobile broadband is that it can be portable, either by carrying a MiFi router, a data dongle or a SIM-enabled device. This can save you having to connect to potentially unsafe public Wi-Fi while you are travelling.

4.) Studying away from home

Most students can benefit from tailored student broadband packages from the big internet providers, but many will still find themselves stuck with a dodgy connection in their halls of residence or around campus. A mobile internet connection – if you can get a mobile signal – could give you a significant speed boost over a shared connection used by hundreds of people. It can also be more flexible, so you can cancel it while you are home for the summer.

5.) Looking for back-up broadband

A mobile broadband connection can be a useful back up. If your home broadband goes down for any reason, you can still connect to the internet through the mobile network. This can be especially valuable if you work from home and cannot afford to be offline for any period of time.

How fast is mobile broadband?

The speed of your mobile broadband will depend on the package you buy, your location and the device you are using. Different areas will receive different types of mobile signal, while some devices will only be compatible with certain networks. If you are in a 5G area on a compatible device with a 5G plan, you can get the fastest possible mobile internet speeds. This will theoretically mean you can achieve a download speed of 1,000Mbps, faster than most top fixed-line broadband packages. The reality is that you may not have a strong enough signal to reach the very top speeds while the UK’s 5G infrastructure is still being rolled out. For example, EE states that you can expect maximum download speeds of around 100Mbps on its current 5G plan.

4G is the previous generation of mobile network technology, though it continues to form part of the developing 5G system. With a 4G-compatible device on a suitable plan in the right area, you can theoretically hit a top download speed of 150Mbps, though EE suggests 30Mbps is more realistic. With 3G, the maximum is 7.2Mbps, though you are more likely to find your device can only reach 3Mbps. There are also other, older mobile networks that your device will connect to if you are in an area with less signal coverage.

The actual download speed you get on your device will depend on your specific location and the type of device you are using. If you are not sure what download speed will suit you, read our article ‘What broadband speed do I need?’.

Mobile broadband deals

A growing number of major home broadband providers offer mobile broadband deals. At the time of writing O2, Vodafone and Three all sell mobile broadband packages that come with either a MiFi device or a hub router.

You will find many more mobile providers offer data-only SIM deals that can be combined with compatible devices to create a mobile hotspot. Some even include the cost of a compatible device in the monthly cost – just like a phone contract – though this can sometimes work out as an expensive way to pay for a new tablet or laptop.

Unlike most fixed-line broadband packages, mobile broadband deals often include a limited data package. This could be frustrating for households that are used to an unlimited supply of data from their home broadband. Unlimited data packages do exist, though they will be more expensive and not available in every part of the UK.

Pros and cons of mobile broadband

Here is a summary of the main pros and cons of mobile broadband:

Pros of mobile broadband

  • Can be a great way to get portable broadband
  • Can work out cheaper than fixed-line broadband
  • An alternative for households that cannot get fixed-line broadband
  • Short-term contracts available
  • Easy to set up as no engineer visit is required
  • Usually cheaper than satellite broadband
  • Download speeds can be as fast as full-fibre broadband

Cons of mobile broadband

  • Connection speed can be inconsistent, so you might find you lose signal
  • Higher lag than fixed-line broadband
  • High speeds not widely available
  • There may be a usage allowance
  • A battery on a SIM-enabled device will drain faster than if it was connected to the Wi-Fi

Read our article ‘How to switch broadband provider’ to learn more about transferring to a mobile broadband connection.