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Updated: 13 Jun 2022

What is 4G and 5G mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband sells itself on its availability and flexibility. Here, we explain all you need to know and whether it’s right for you.
Hamse Yusuf
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If you're struggling to get a reliable fixed broadband connection in the home, an 'over the air' alternative comes in the form of 4G and 5G mobile broadband.

With a reliable 4G or 5G signal, you'll be able to use one of these devices to access the internet on all your home devices. Read on to find out how they work. 

Check our guide to the best and worst mobile networks to see how providers are rated for network reliability, value for money and more. 

How does mobile broadband work?

Instead of using telephone lines, 4G broadband routers use the same signal as your smartphone to access the internet. As 4G generally requires less infrastructure and therefore has more widespread availability, it has the potential to be worthwhile for people who struggle to get a good signal from their traditional ADSL/Cable internet service provider (ISP).

We've also started to see 5G mobile broadband options emerge, though these are still less common than 4G.

How can you access mobile broadband at home?

For most people, there are three ways to access mobile broadband in your home:

  • By 'tethering' your smartphone - This setting essentially turns your smartphone into a wi-fi hotspot, allowing a small amount of connected devices to quickly connect to the internet. An important thing to note with tethering is that it comes with separate data limits. For example, Three’s unlimited data plans come with a tethering allowance of 30GB per month. Our guide on how to set up a mobile wi-fi hotspot has more. 
  • By using a mobile broadband 'dongle' - This is a small 4G-enabled device which connects to your devices via USB or wi-fi to get you connected. This can usually allow more traffic than tethering.
  • By using a dedicated 4G router - providers such as Three with its HomeFi product, and EE with its 4GEE wi-fi, have dedicated routers capable of handling many more devices and traffic than tethering or dongles can.

Our mobile phone coverage map will give you more information about 4G coverage in your local area.

How much does it cost?

Generally speaking, 4G and 5G broadband is more expensive than standard fixed-line broadband. This is despite the fact that you would not have to pay line rental or for a landline you may not use. 

The higher costs are largely down to the fact that there are fewer unlimited plans, whereas unlimited data use is common with fixed-line broadband. Monthly data plans start from around 4GB, with prices starting from £10 and going up to over £30 a month. 

With such strict data limits and hefty charges for going over your data allowance, it's important to be aware of how much data common online activities use. The table below provides some examples:

ActivityData usage
Web browsing (60 pages)140-240MB
Stream music/radio (1 hour)35-135MB
Netflix (1 hour, SD)300-700MB
Netflix (1 hour, HD)3GB
Skype/video call (1 hour)350MB
Download 100 e-mails10MB
Download 100 documents200-500MB
Sources: Spotify / Apple Music / BBC iPlayer Radio / Netflix / Three / O2 / Vodafone / EE

In comparison, fixed-line broadband packages start from around £17 per month, a price which often includes line rental, unlimited data and free equipment (but not always). 

4G broadband may therefore not be appropriate for people who are heavy users and are only looking to save money. However, if you are someone who is only using the internet for surfing, emails and a few videos, then 4G broadband might be a practical option.

How fast is 4G broadband?

With 4G, speeds have become comparable and, in some cases, faster than fixed-line broadband. According to OpenSignal data, the 'Big Four' (EE, O2, Three and Vodafone) were able to achieve an average speed of 21.33Mbps, which is faster than many ADSL broadband products. 4G broadband is very unlikely to reach the speeds that fibre can reach, with some fibre providers offering up to 300Mbps for your home, but it should be sufficient to comfortably stream or download content with a strong enough signal.

Average 4G speeds in the UK compared

Music album (50MB)tv SHOW (500MB)HD TV show (2.5GB)Film (800MB)HD film (4GB)
EE14 sec2 min 24 secs12 min 2 secs3 mins 51 secs19 mins 45 secs
Three18 secs3 mins 8 secs16 mins 2 secs5 mins25 mins 40 secs
Vodafone22 secs3 mins 41 secs18 mins 53 secs5 mins 54 secs30 mins 14 secs
O227 secs4 mins 38 secs23 mins 45 secs7 mins 25 secs30 mins 14 secs
Average 4G speed18 secs4 mins 38 secs15 mins 45 secs4 mins 56 secs25 mins 16 sec

*Based on Openreach speed data.

Also, the speed you will get from your 4G broadband is dependent on many other factors, including how far you are from a mobile phone mast and how strong the signal is. If you experience patchy mobile phone service at home, then it is likely that you will experience similar issues with 4G broadband, affecting the speeds you can achieve.

Find out how fast your connection is using our Broadband Speed Checker tool.

Pros and cons of using 4G mobile broadband


  • 4G broadband contracts are much more flexible, with a variety of short-term plans available.
  • 4G broadband can be much more portable, allowing you to connect your devices on the go.
  • For people who live in rural areas and struggle to get any connection through fixed-line broadband, 4G can provide a viable alternative.


  • 4G broadband can often be more expensive than fixed-line broadband, with costs for more data and the equipment.
  • Strict download limits (typically around 40GB a month) mean that heavy users will struggle not to exceed the 4G data allowances, leading to hefty excess data charges.
  • 4G broadband service can be patchy in some areas, as it is heavily reliant on good 4G signal strength, among other things.

Who is mobile broadband right for?

Strict download limits and patchy service means that heavy internet users will probably not find 4G or 5G broadband to be right for them. However, if you are someone who lives in a rural area and struggles to get online using fixed-line broadband, or are a light user, mobile broadband can provide a useful way of getting online. 

Read our mobile phone provider reviews to find out which networks come out on top.