Mobile Broadband Beginners Guide
What is mobile broadband and how does it work?
Mobile internet technology allows you to do all the things you usually use your broadband connection for without needing a fixed-line telephone connection.
This means you can access the internet while you're on the move (on public transport, for example), or away from home (perhaps on holiday, or at university). Send email, visit websites – even watch streaming TV clips and download files – it's all possible.
Mobile broadband works using either a small portable USB modem (often called a dongle, or broadband stick), a data card or built-in device (on some laptops), or a mobile Wi-Fi (or MiFi) unit to connect to the internet using the same signal mobile phones use. Wherever you are, as long as you can get a signal from your mobile broadband provider, you can connect to the web.
If you were looking to buy a mobile broadband package then take a look at the latest deals in our comparison tables, otherwise read on to learn more about mobile broadband.
Who needs mobile internet?
Mobile internet is a great option for people who travel a lot, or have a long commute to work and need to make the best use of their time. It's possible to hook up to the internet in just about any location, so long as you're in an area with good coverage, making it great for business people. Smartphones are great, but why fiddle around on a BlackBerry when you can work on your laptop?
Mobile broadband is also increasingly popular amongst subscribers who don't have a fixed residence, such as students. This is because you can pay for one internet service, but use it at home, in digs, in the library – even in lectures. Also, with lots of pay as you go options, you don't have to sign your life away to get it. Thanks to Mi-Fi, you can even share your mobile broadband connection now!
If you aren't subscribed to a mobile broadband service you can still make use of the internet outside of your home, by using a laptop at a Wi-Fi hotspot. These are public areas where you're given the opportunity to hook up to the mobile internet through a shared connection, like using a wireless router at home.
These are most commonly found in stations, airports, hotels and cafes, and although some Wi-Fi hotspots are free to use, others require you to pay for your online time and can be very expensive. Also, you are using a public connection and although you should be able to surf safely, there are still risks attached. Of course, if you have mobile broadband, you can still use the free services when in these Wi-Fi hotspots – just remember to switch over from your paid service!
Will mobile broadband work with my current equipment?
Mobile broadband works by connecting to laptop, tablet or PC via a card, MiFi unit or dongle – as long as you have a USB port and a compatible computer operating system (see below), you should be fine. Any relatively recent device shouldn't pose a problem.
If you buy a laptop with built-in mobile broadband, it should be pretty much ready to go out of the box. Dongles are improving all the time, and tend to be pretty straightforward 'plug and play' devices now – just pop it into a spare USB port and it should instruct you from there. MiFis are even easier, as they're wireless.
When buying a mobile internet device, it's very important to check that your operating system is compatible with it – not all will work if you're using a Mac or Linux operating system, for example, but most will be okay with more recent Microsoft Windows systems such as Vista, or Windows 7 and 8.
Will it work abroad?
Some mobile internet tariffs have a block on them so it's only possible to use them within the UK (this is common with PAYG deals), but if not you can use them in any country your mobile broadband provider has an agreement with. Prices have come down a lot in recent times, especially in Europe, but it is still an expensive hobby – see our guide to using mobile broadband abroad for more information.
Types of mobile broadband
If you decide mobile broadband is for you, there are quite a few variables you'll need to consider. However, Broadband Genie is here to help guide you through the process.
Much like mobile phone tariffs, you first decide if you want a long term contract or a pay as you go (PAYG) deal. Next, you have to decide which provider to choose (do they have good coverage?), how you want to connect (dongle only, perhaps an iPad deal?), how much download capacity you need (also see our guide on what you get for your gigabyte (GB)). Next, consider what speed you're hoping to get (there can be a big difference now between 3G and the new 4G) and any extras that may be thrown in to the deal.
For a complete look at all these areas, head over to our guide to mobile broadband comparison – it will take you through using our website step by step, making sure you find the deal that is right for you.
So what's the downside?
There are currently two main downsides to mobile broadband: stability/coverage and usage allowances.
You need to realise that, despite its popularity, mobile broadband is still very much in its infancy as a technology. The mobile broadband internet service providers are improving their technology all the time and speeds, coverage and stability will get better in time. However, right now, it isn't always a smooth ride. If you need a stable, fast connection you can rely on, you are probably best advised to look for a fixed-line solution – although mobile broadband is a brilliant back up even then.
Speed can also be an issue for some people. While advertised 3G speeds currently range to a max of 7.2Mb, the reality for most people is something in the region of 1-2Mb. While this should be fine for the basics, such as web surfing and emailing, you may struggle with tasks such a big downloads (where download limits may also be a factor), streaming video and audio (such as using Spotify or the BBC iPlayer) or gaming.
4G is set to change all that, with speeds of up to 20Mb already a reality outside the UK. However 4G is very new to the UK and even with faster speeds, stability and coverage can be an issue.
Can I customise my mobile broadband dongle?
Sometimes it's good to be individual, especially when using a gadget such as a mobile broadband dongle. The last thing you want to do is accidentally pick up someone else's modem, so putting your own mark on your device is a great idea!
Just as customising your mobile phone used to be all the rage, it's possible to purchase individual skins for many types of dongles – either the smaller pocket USB types or the larger modems. The choices are endless! If you love your girly gadgets then you can smarten up your modem with something suitably feminine. Or, if you prefer to be in possession of something a little more sophisticated then there are some more subtle options too.
A good place to hunt for customisable USB modem skins is www.threeskins.com
Can I cancel my mobile broadband account?
Every mobile broadband provider is different, so it's vital that you check the terms and conditions of a contract before committing yourself.
Some mobile broadband operators offer a 'cooling off' period of around two weeks. If you’re unhappy with the level of service, or the network performance, you should be able to return your dongle and cancel your contract without having to pay any extra months.
If the internet service provider you've chosen doesn't offer this, remember that if you buy online you are covered by the UK's distance selling regulations. This means you can return the product within seven working days if it does not meet your expectations.
Otherwise, if you want to cancel your mobile broadband before the terms is up, you may be responsible for paying the remaining fee for your subscription upfront. Sometimes, this is waived in exceptional circumstances (such as moving location), but providers deal with these on a case-by-case basis and there's no guarantee. Unfortunately, stopping payments altogether is very rare.
If you're completely new to mobile broadband, there's always the option of going pay-as-you-go initially, before you commit to a lengthy contract.
I've still got some questions
Please take the time to look through our other guides too - it's best to do your research and make the right decision. However, if you still have questions you can't find answered here, why not ask the Genie?