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Home vs mobile broadband: Can you use 3G, 4G, and 5G mobile internet for home broadband?

istock/stevanovicigorMillions of homes and businesses now have access to fast fibre optic internet via the BT Openreach network, Virgin Media network, and numerous smaller players such as Hyperoptic and Gigaclear. If you can get fibre it’s a great choice, providing fast (sometimes gigabit) speeds at an affordable price.

But that’s if you can get it. There are still many premises where the only option for fixed-line broadband is ADSL, which can be very slow depending on the condition of the line and distance from the exchange. This is a particular problem for rural areas, but there are still urban locations that lack modern broadband infrastructure.

If you’re in a situation where internet access is very sluggish you might be looking for alternatives, and one potential contender is 3G or 4G mobile broadband.

But can mobile broadband be used for home broadband? What are the potential pitfalls and advantages? How fast is it? And what will it cost? Let’s take a look!

Mobile broadband at home: the pros and cons

Pros

  • Faster than ADSL

4G mobile broadband can be quicker than ADSL fixed-line broadband, and can even approach fibre optic performance. 5G is even faster than that, capable of outpacing many fibre optic broadband services.

3G, while much slower, can still exceed the maximum speeds you may get from an ADSL service.

  • Doesn’t need a phone line

This is a huge advantage of any mobile or wireless broadband service. The limited choice of service on a fixed-line is irrelevant, and you don’t need to worry about paying line rental if you don’t need a landline for calls.

  • Portable

Unlike a regular broadband service a mobile link can give you internet access wherever you go (signal allowing, of course).

  • Flexible contracts

Most home internet deals come with 12, 18 or 24-month contracts, with a few options for short term and “no contract” deals. But mobile broadband is a great deal more flexible in this regard. As well as long term contracts you can also choose from rolling monthly and pay-as-you-go.

Cons

  • Relies on a strong signal

Mobile broadband is absolutely reliant on a strong network signal. The weaker the signal, the slower and more unstable the connection will be.

  • Performance can be unpredictable

Even if you have a strong signal you may find performance fluctuates depending on network traffic and weather conditions. This may be problematic if you rely on having a certain minimum speed as performance could change from one day to the next.

  • Data usage caps can be restrictive

Aside from signal strength, the biggest stumbling block for anyone considering mobile broadband for home is that data usage caps are often very low in comparison to fixed-line deals. The biggest allowances tend to be around 100-200GB per month but this is more expensive than many unlimited fixed-line services. More affordable deals are in the region of 2-20GB, which is very little if it's your primary connection to the internet. This limitation makes many mobile broadband packages unsuitable for heavy usage. You can get unlimited data with selected Three mobile broadband deals, but you will need to sign up for a 12 or 24-month contract.

  • How fast is mobile broadband?

    The most recent mobile network analysis from OpenSignal, which uses crowd-sourced real-world data, reported an average mobile network download speed of 23.55Mbps for 4G and 5.9Mbps for 3G. 

    With ADSL broadband promising an average 10-11Mb it is reasonable to assume that a 4G mobile broadband service will be quicker, though even if you’ve only got a 3G signal it may still be faster than a fixed-line service can provide.

    5G is capable of significantly faster speeds in excess of 100Mbps, but it is early days for this technology and coverage remains fairly limited.

4G and 5G home broadband deals: what are they, and do you need one? 

4G and 5G home broadband uses mobile networks to provide home broadband. They can potentially be as fast or faster than many fixed-line broadband services, and you don't need a phone line.

So how do they differ to a mobile broadband package? The two key differences with a 4G or 5G home package are the equipment you receive with the deal and the significantly higher data allowances.

Unlike a typical mobile broadband package which includes a USB or Wi-Fi dongle, a 4G or 5G home deal will include more powerful hardware. Often this will be something very similar to a home Wi-Fi router, though there are also compact Wi-Fi hubs. These devices will support more Wi-Fi devices and may include wired network ports and other features which home users may need. But they will also be larger than a mobile broadband dongle as they're not intended to be portable.

The other crucial difference is that 4G or 5G home broadband can have much higher data caps than mobile broadband because they are designed to be an alternative to fixed-line home broadband, where unlimited data is standard. EE currently has deals with up to 500GB per month, while Three provides unlimited data on all packages.

Assuming you have a strong mobile signal in your home, then a 4G or 5G home broadband deal can make for a compelling alternative to home broadband. Prices are extremely competitive and the speeds can be impressive, especially if you're able to get 5G. Plus you don't need to have a line installed or pay line rental, and can easily take the broadband when moving home. Another advantage is that 4G and 5G home broadband is extremely quick to set up: there's no waiting for an engineer, just plug in the hardware and you're ready to go.

Compare latest 4G and 5G home broadband deals

Interested in purchasing a 4G or 5G home broadband deal? Here are a few of the best packages currently available: 

Network Monthly £ Setup £ Data limit Contract Device
Three £22 £0 UNLIMITED 24-mo HomeFi Plus Buy now
Three £25 £0 UNLIMITED 24-mo AI Cube Buy now
EE £35 £0 100GB 18-mo 4GEE Router Buy now
EE £50 £0 500GB 18-mo 4GEE Router Buy now
EE £35 £100 100GB 1-mo 4GEE Router Buy now

What do you need to use mobile broadband as home broadband?

To use mobile broadband at home you do not necessarily need any special equipment. But depending on what devices you have and how many people are sharing the connection you might want to consider some alternative approaches.

Standard mobile broadband dongles use a USB connection, something you'll find on any reasonably modern computer. That’s fine if it’s only going to be used by one person at a time and you only ever want to connect a laptop or desktop computer running Windows or Apple Mac OS. But sharing the connection with multiple systems or devices is not easy or recommended.

In that situation, it is far better to go with a Wi-Fi dongle. Wi-Fi dongles - also known as pocket Wi-Fi or ‘MiFi’ - provide mobile network connectivity over a Wi-Fi signal, which means they will work with anything that supports Wi-Fi (including tablets and smartphones). It also allows the connection to be shared very easily, typically with five or ten devices at once. This flexibility makes them far more useful for home broadband.

You can also use a smartphone or tablet with SIM card as a Wi-Fi dongle by tethering over Wi-Fi. This could save you from having to buy a dongle, but check that your smartphone contract permits tethering otherwise you might be charged extra fees.

If you’re considering mobile home broadband as a long term solution you should get a 4G or 5G home broadband package. Choose one which includes a router so you can use both wired and wireless networking and make use of more advanced features.

One final piece of equipment that may be worth investing in is an external aerial. This can greatly boost signal strength for better speed and stability and could be essential in low signal areas. To use an external aerial you will need a dongle or router with an external antenna connection or removable antennas. For further help with choosing an external 4G or 3G aerial consult this useful guide by Solwise.

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