Broadband: How to get the best broadband deal Do I need mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband

Mobile broadband lets you hop online anywhere there’s a decent mobile signal using small USB modems that you plug into your computer (mobile broadband dongles) rather than the traditional modem or wireless router that you need to access fixed-line broadband.

Mobile broadband signals are carried over the airwaves, so you're not tied to a fixed location, but speeds are generally slower than fixed broadband and usage caps are more restrictive.

Although handy, much of the work of mobile broadband on a computer is taken up by mobile smartphones that can access email, train timetables and social media. However, mobile broadband can still be useful as a short term stop-gap while moving house, or as a back-up to fixed line services. In some areas, mobile broadband can actually be faster than ADSL, and there’s no line rental required.

The best broadband deals - choose the best broadband package for you.

What is mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband uses the same sort of technology as your mobile phone, plucking signals from the airwaves, but passing data instead of voice calls between your device and the mobile company phone masts.

Mobile broadband comes via 2G, 3G or 4G connections, with services typically advertised as up to 7.2Mbps for 3G services, which are the most common in and around towns. 4G services have also started to roll out, with EE, O2 and Vodafone all offering access to their faster networks. 4G offers theoretical speeds of up to 100Mbps though 20-30Mbps is more typical, but coverage is patchy and 4G is not available in many areas.

Real-world mobile broadband performance is often slower than advertised, and speeds can drop on busier networks. Mobile broadband has similar speed limitations to fixed-line broadband, meaning that the maximum 'up to' speed is a theoretical rather than practical maximum and download limits are generally lower, too.

Check with service providers whether your home or destination is covered before you buy a mobile broadband package as some areas have no service or are only covered by one or two of the main mobile carriers.

Mobile broadband is either sold with a monthly contract or as Pay As You Go data bundles that are valid for a set period, which can make it a useful stopgap. However, you may be able to use your mobile phone as a modem by 'tethering' it to your laptop. Seeing as you might already have data included in your mobile tariff it’s worth checking with your provider before getting a mobile broadband package.

When might I need mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband as a wired broadband alternative

In some areas, ADSL broadband connections can be patchy, and while mobile broadband coverage is far from universal, it can provide a viable alternative to an ADSL connection in more remote areas.

Mobile broadband abroad

Although mobile broadband can be hellishly expensive overseas – where you may be better off using public wi-fi – around the UK it can prove a useful way of staying in touch. It's worth checking where you’re going gets a signal.

Working on mobile broadband

If you’re out and about a lot and don’t want to rely on public wi-fi in cafés and service stations, mobile broadband can help you stay in touch with the office or clients.

Moving house or switching broadband

Switching broadband can take time, a week in many cases, so a mobile connection can ease the frustration of having no internet connection.

Who offers mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband is provided by the same companies that run mobile phone services – with EE, 3, O2, Virgin and Vodafone the main companies supplying data packages.

It's hard to rate performance on each network as it varies from area to area, but Ofcom in March 2013 revealed that it has received most complaints about Orange in 2012

The regulator is out of date with its speed tests for the various operators, but the two companies that now make up EE, Orange and T-Mobile rated slowest in its 2011 survey results, with O2 and Vodafone proving the fastest.

Compare mobile broadband deals from leading operators and see which mobile provider has the happiest customers in the Which? mobile broadband review – don't choose a mobile broadband service without it.

More on this...