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How fast is mobile broadband? A guide to 3G, 4G, and 5G broadband speeds

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

But how fast is mobile broadband? While home broadband uses average speeds, mobile internet uses maximum speeds, and it's not always clear how this translates to the real world. We've found these numbers often don't match the user experience in practice.

How fast is mobile broadband?

Late in 2012, EE launched the UK's first 4G mobile broadband service, with the rest following in autumn 2013. More recently, we've seen the launch of next-generation 5G services. Both 4G and 5G deliver a significantly quicker speed than the older 3G networks.

And what kind of performance can you expect from these networks? A good source of information is OpenSignal, which uses real-world data and produces regular reports. Here are its average 3G and 4G speeds from October 2019:

Total average
3G average download speed 5.5Mb 5.3Mb 8.2Mb 5.0Mb 6Mb
4G average download speed 33.7Mb 16.9Mb 21.6Mb 25.1Mb 24.3Mb

5G is very new so there's less data available regarding its performance, but tests show that 5G can be expected to offer speeds well above 100Mb.

If you want to check your mobile broadband speed, you can do so with our broadband speed test tool.

What are upload and download speeds?

For most of us, especially when it comes to mobile broadband speed, download is the most important figure. The download speed is the rate at which data is transferred to your device from a mobile internet service provider (ISP). That data could be anything from browsing a web page 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 device can be sent to the internet. Examples of uploads include posting content such as holiday pics to Facebook or adding videos to YouTube. While upload speeds often fall into the background as far as advertising is concerned, they can be crucial to people who do a lot of uploading – such as those working remotely from home.

What affects mobile 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, it's worthless if it has weak or no coverage in the area that you'll be using it.

Is mobile broadband fast enough for me?

Mobile broadband can be a little misunderstood, and many people think it will be as fast as their fixed-line home connection. That may be true when you're in a spot with strong 4G or 5G signal, but often the average user will find it delivers slower and less consistent speed than 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 4G broadband speed of 24Mb will be more than enough for many online tasks. 

In fact, speeds of a few megabits per second should be sufficient 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 occasional drop in service and aren't always in a massive hurry for your data, mobile broadband could be a good choice for you.

Can mobile broadband be used for online gaming?

It is possible to use mobile broadband for gaming. Online gaming relies on good 'ping' or 'response' times and a mobile connection is capable of providing this, so long as you have a strong signal. 

However, you may also want to take a look at our guide to mobile broadband usage. Gaming can be a data-intensive hobby, especially as it now involves downloading the game itself, as well as huge patches. 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 unlimited deals are cheap and readily available, there are no unlimited mobile broadband services. 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.

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