How fast is mobile broadband? A guide to 3G and 4G broadband speeds

by Chris Marling

A key factor in the buying decision of many home broadband customers is speed, and mobile is no different - nobody wants to be growing old as web pages load, or pulling their hair out waiting for that important download.

3G mobile internet is sold with a 'max' speed of 7.2Mb (with the exception of Three, which has invested in improved 3G technology and claims max speeds of up to 42Mb). However, the 'max' is the important factor here – in our testing we've found these numbers don't really equate to the user experience in practice.

Late in 2012, EE launched the UK's first 4G mobile broadband service - with the rest following in autumn 2013. 4G speeds dwarf those of 3G and the technology is taking over as 4G coverage expands nationwide, though 4G is still relatively patchy compared to 3G.

Where you can get a 4G signal, providers claim you should expect speeds of 8-12Mb. However, independent testing suggests a range far wider than this.

For the most up-to-date information on broadband speeds, check out the mobile broadband price comparison section on Broadband Genie. If you want to check your mobile broadband speed you can do so with our specialised mobile broadband speed test tool.

What are upload and download speeds?

For most people, especially when looking at mobile broadband speed, download speed is the important one of the two – the speed at which data can be transferred to your PC from your mobile internet service provider (ISP). This could cover anything from browsing the net to downloading an MP3 track, or streaming music or television via the iPlayer. When you're looking at our comparison tables, the figure noted in the 'Speed' column is the download speed.

In contrast, upload speed is the rate at which data from your own machine can be sent via the internet. Examples of uploads include sending content such as holiday pics to Flickr and Facebook, or adding videos to YouTube. While upload speeds often fall into the background as far as advertising is concerned, they can be very important to people who do a lot of uploading – working remotely from home, for example, and sending large files via email. 

What factors affect 3G and 4G broadband speeds?

All manner of things can affect the mobile broadband speed received by a customer, including network coverage in the area, the amount of network traffic at any given time, weather conditions, whether you're on the move or static and interference from other devices. 

However tempting an offer a mobile broadband provider puts in front of you, if it has poor or no 3G/4G coverage in the area that you'll be using it, its worthless. Be sure to visit our main comparison page and use the mobile broadband coverage checker there for each network before you make your decision.

So is it fast enough for me?

Mobile broadband can be a little misunderstood, and many people think it will be as good (and fast) as their fixed-line connection. For some it can be, especially in a static spot in a good coverage area, but until the technology has moved forward a little more the average user will find slower and less consistent speeds than they're used to from a fixed line.

However, mobile broadband is still a fantastic product once you realise its limitations, and can be invaluable. While serious gamers and data hungry businesses won't be cancelling their fixed-line broadband deals in a hurry, an average 3G broadband speed of around 2Mb will be enough for many online tasks. 

In fact, a speed of 1-2Mb should be fine for browsing the web, checking email, downloading a few songs and even watching the odd bit of streaming TV. So, if you can handle the odd drop in service and aren't always in a massive hurry for your data, mobile broadband could be a good choice for you.

What about mobile broadband gaming?

Playing games online is a demanding task for a lot of fixed line broadband services so playing games on a mobile broadband connection may not always be smooth running.

Basically, playing games using mobile broadband will be heavily reliant on how good your signal is. If you’re playing action games where speed and quick responses are essential then this may pose some problems. Online gaming relies on good 'ping' or 'response' times. Although things are set to improve, mobile broadband running at peak performance often only barely scrapes by. 

You may also want to take a look at our guide to mobile broadband usage: what can you get for your gigabyte? Gaming on mobile broadband can be a data intensive hobby, especially classic titles such as World of Warcraft that can often involve you downloading huge patches (often, in some games, this will happen in the background while you play the game itself). In this type of scenario, you need to be very careful not to go over your data limit, as you may incur charges.

Unlike fixed-line broadband, where some providers aim deals specifically at gamers, there are no mobile broadband for gaming packages available: this of course tells its own story. It's going to be a while before playing games with mobile broadband is a reliable, and financially sound, way to get your online games fix.