Buyers' guide: Mobile WiFi
Whether you're new to the concept of mobile WiFi, or just looking for some advice on comparison and finding the best deals and offers, our guide to mobile Wi-Fi (sometimes referred to as mobile MiFi) should answer all your questions.
What is mobile Wi-Fi?
WiFi broadband is a term used to describe the distribution of broadband without wires. Typically, the broadband signal comes into a router/modem which then distributes the signal wirelessly to all Wi-Fi units within range that have the correct security passwords enabled. This could be to computers and netbooks and laptops, as well as smartphones, game consoles etc.
Wireless broadband has become extremely common for fixed-line home broadband set-ups, but is now becoming increasingly popular as a mobile internet option too. You can either plug dongles into a gadget such as Zoom's Travel Router, or buy a specific mobile WiFi unit such as the ones above that don't need a dongle. The first of these onto the market was Three mobile's MiFi mobile broadband device, hence the common usage of the term mobile Mi-Fi.
Whichever 3G broadband mobile Wi-Fi device you decide to use, the effect should be the same: you will be able to share your 3G internet signal across all your Wi-Fi enabled devices. So, if you're on a train and your MiFi broadband device is picking up a 3G signal, you and a friend could be surfing the net on your notebooks while another mate checks the email on their laptop. And it's safe too.
Mobile MiFi is born
It's worth giving Three Mobile a bit of kudos here, as it was the first UK mobile network to bring its mobile Mi-Fi router to the market. It could see that people using laptop internet at home wanted the same wireless experience on the move – and with more than one machine with a single mobile internet account.
It has moved on from the original design now, but if you want to read a review of how we found the initial Three Mobile MiFi router, you can read it here. While 3 mobile wifi might not have been the biggest seller, it proved there was a market for mobile WiFi and saw the likes of first Vodafone and then T-Mobile and Orange Mobile follow suit. At the present time O2 does not offer wifi mobile broadband.
The future: 4G mobile WiFi
Just as 3G mobile broadband was a big step up from 2G, making mobile broadband Wi-Fi possible, the increased speeds possible via 4G mobile broadband will be an equally big leap in standards. While current average are around 1-3Mb, 4G should usher in averages of 10-20Mb with even faster possible further down the line.
While some countries, such as the United States and parts of Europe, already have 4G mobile broadband, we're not likely to see it in the UK until 2013. This is because it will use a different mobile spectrum range from our current 2G and 3G services, and this spectrum space needs to be auctioned off by the Government – a process not set to start until late 2012.
Pay as you go mobile Wi-Fi, or contract?
This is the first choice you need to make, but thankfully there are now mobile WiFi options available for both prepay and contract customers.
Pay as you go may be best if you are on a tight budget, are new to mobile Wi-Fi (or mobile broadband at all) or if you think your need for a mobile broadband solution will be occasional or temporary.
Choosing prepay will normally see you having to pay for the mobile WiFi device itself, and you will likely pay more per GB downloaded. However, you aren't tied down for the long haul.
Of course, the opposite is true of contract mobile wifi deals. If you're happy to sign up to a tariff lasting between one and two years, you'll get a free (or greatly reduced) device as well as cheaper downloads. Just be sure you are ready to commit – will you still need a mobile broadband Wi-Fi device in two years' time, on this particular network?
How to compare mobile WiFi
As you'll see from the comparison table above, it's not as simple as choosing the cheapest deal you can find. As more mobile Wi-Fi deals hit the market, the variety of download limits, contract lengths and prices grows. So which one should you buy?
The following section breaks down the decision into the five columns (plus the 'extras' section) above, to give you the complete picture. At the moment, we don't see too much to call between the various mobile Wi-Fi devices themselves, so we suggest you make your decision based largely on the tariff. However, if you want to find out about a device, simply click on its picture for some details.
- Setup: This is the essentially what you'll pay for the mobile WiFi dongle itself. If you're happy to sign up for a long contract, you'll be able to get one cheap or even free as a sweetener. Otherwise, you could be looking at anything up to around £100 for your mobile Wi-Fi or MiFi unit. If you're sure this is the way you want to go, and that you're confident in a particular network, taking the long deal with free hardware is probably the way to go.
- Monthly price: Quite simply, your monthly bill for the duration of the contract. This will tend to increase the higher the download allowance, and decrease the longer the deal. Be sure to pick a monthly fee you'll be comfortable with even if you fall on slightly harder times, as remember - you're tied into a contract. If the 'monthly price' column lists pay as you go, you'll be paying for the amount of data you use with your mobile WiFi device, rather than a fixed monthly tariff. The price per time period or per GB will be listed in the 'downloads' column.
- Contract: Mobile Wi-Fi deals could range from as long as two years to as little as one month, depending on how much you're willing to commit to the mobile network. As we mentioned above, you'll find that the longer you are willing to sign up for, the cheaper your monthly payments should be. There could be other sweeteners too, such as a free mobile WiFi device or perhaps free WiFi hotspot access (meaning you don't have to use your monthly allowance up in certain places, such as cafés). However, be sure you're ready to sign up for a long deal before committing. 'No contract' indicates this is a pay as you go deal, based on data usage rather than a time limit (although you may have to use up your data in an allotted time period.
- Speed: Currently, it may be best to ignore this column. Across the UK, the fastest mobile broadband speeds you are likely to encounter will be around 3Mb, which all of these devices are capable of handling. Ones with a higher speed may be future proofed to a certain degree, but averages are unlikely to rise much in the near future.
- Downloads: This column will either list the download limit you will have for your mobile Wi-Fi device each month, or the cost of adding an amount of downloadable data on a pay as you go option. This is one of the most important columns to consider when deciding on which mobile WiFi tariff to go for, as you can save some serious money by taking a lower limit. However, if it doesn't meet your needs, you could find your service restricted if you go over your limit – either that, or you may have to pay an expense excess for using extra data. For help on working out your data usage habits, check out our guide entitled ' How much download usage do I need?'
- Extras: This lists any perks that may come with your mobile WiFi purchase (such as free texts, or special offers), or might give extra information such as how many devices you can connect with it. This kind of information can be the real clincher if you're stuck between two choices, but make sure you have decided on an affordable price and acceptable download limit first.
How do I order mobile Wi-Fi?
Once you've made up your mind which mobile Wi-Fi device, network and specific tariff takes your fancy, simply click the green 'Go' button on the right of the product in the table above (or call the number below it if you'd rather order by phone – we recommend ordering online though).
When you click 'Go', you'll be taken straight to the website of the network itself to buy the product directly from them, so you don't need to worry about security or the credibility of the site you'll be arriving at.
If, however, you're still unsure about which network to choose, you can check out what other Broadband Genie visitors make of them by clicking the word 'reviews' under each network's logo.
Be warned though, the majority of people don't come online to say something nice about their broadband provider! Most of the time, people want to have a moan – take this into consideration when reading user reviews and take a good look through to get a balanced picture. You might also want to check out our Mobile Broadband Road Trip results, or visit our network pages.
Hopefully, you'll find everything you need to get you up and running with mobile WiFi – but if all else fails, remember you can always ' Ask the Genie' a specific question. Good luck!