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Beginners Guide: what is mobile broadband?

whimsical illustration showing characters on their mobile phone and laptop with a hand operating a smartphone in the centre

Mobile broadband is high-speed, wireless internet access with data that’s sent over a 3G, 4G or 5G mobile network.

Mobile internet technology allows you to do all the things you usually use your home broadband connection for, but without needing a fixed-line internet connection.

With a mobile broadband service, you can get online whilst on the move, or away from home (perhaps on holiday or at uni). It’s also an option if you want to get online at home, but for some reason, don’t have access to a fixed line service. This could be the case if you’re in rented accommodation and your landlord won’t allow any installation, or if you’re in a new build, rural area or high-rise block.

Mobile broadband: the key points

  • Mobile broadband provides internet access via mobile networks.
  • Mobile broadband can be accessed with a USB dongle, Wi-Fi dongle, a computer or tablet with a SIM card, or a tethered smartphone.
  • Providers, such as Three, also offer dedicated mobile broadband routers for home use
  • Mobile broadband can be used with any internet-capable device, provided it has either a SIM card slot or a way of connecting to a dongle.
  • 5G can deliver very fast mobile internet but has limited coverage. 4G is slower but has much better coverage.
  • Unlike fibre connections, mobile broadband plans may have a data usage limit, but dedicated mobile home broadband deals come with

How does mobile broadband work?

Mobile broadband uses the same signal that serves mobile phones to deliver internet access. You don’t need a fixed line to connect to the internet. 

With mobile broadband, you'll be able to get online wherever you have mobile signal.

What do I need to use mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband can be accessed using a small portable USB modem (often called a dongle or stick), a mobile Wi-Fi (aka MiFi) hotspot, or by tethering a smartphone

Some laptops and tablets also include built-in support for mobile broadband.

USB dongles only work with a compatible desktop or laptop computer. Mobile Wi-Fi and tethering will work with any device that supports wireless networking.

Which providers offer mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband is available in the UK with:

  • Three
  • Virgin Media (O2)
  • Vodafone
  • O2
  • EE

Before you sign up to a mobile broadband deal, we highly recommend checking out each provider’s coverage map. First, make sure your local area is covered.

If you travel around the UK for work, and it’s important you have a solid connection whilst on the move, make sure the areas around your journey have good coverage too.

Can I use mobile broadband abroad?

Some mobile internet tariffs have a block, so it's only possible to use them within the UK (this is common with Pay-As-You-Go deals). If not, you can use them in any country supported by your mobile broadband provider.

It used to be expensive, but data roaming prices have come down a lot in recent times, especially in Europe.

Is mobile broadband unlimited?

Most mobile broadband deals aren't unlimited.

When buying a mobile broadband service, it’s important to think about potential usage. Choose a data cap that’s too high, and your money is wasted, but too low, and you could be hit with extra fees for exceeding the limit.

Our guide to mobile broadband data usage can help point you in the right direction.

What is 3G, 4G, and 5G?

3G, 4G, and 5G refer to generations of mobile technology.

  • 3G was the first to offer broadband speeds over a mobile network.
  • 4G is the following iteration of mobile networks, which provides vastly improved connection speeds.
  • 5G is the very latest version of mobile technology and can deliver even faster speeds than 4G.
  • 6G is under development.

Should I get 4G, or 5G mobile broadband?

If you’re buying a new mobile broadband service, aim to make sure that it supports 5G.

However, be aware that 5G network coverage is still currently limited, so you'll only get a 5G signal in major towns and cities. You should be able to use 4G when it's not available.

In 2024, EE shut off its final 3G mobile network site. Three and Vodafone are expected to follow suit shortly.

Can mobile broadband be used instead of home broadband?

As long as you have decent mobile signal, mobile broadband, especially 4G and 5G, is fast enough to be a viable alternative to fixed-line home internet. But for many people, it's not the best choice for everyday use. Unlimited fibre broadband is far better for heavy users and shared homes.

Some providers now offer a hybrid broadband package. This falls back on a 4G signal if there are any faults with the main connection.

Three also offers dedicated 4G or 5G Unlimited Broadband deals that are intended for home use.

If you’re interested in finding out more, we have a guide to using mobile broadband at home, as well as more information on hybrid broadband deals.

Do I need 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. You can get online anywhere with good coverage.

Mobile broadband is also popular with those who don't have a fixed residence, such as students. This is because you can pay for one service but use it at home, in digs, in the library, and even in lectures. Also, with lots of pay-as-you-go (PAYG) options, you don't have to sign your life away. Thanks to mobile Wi-Fi, you can even share your mobile broadband connection and create your own mobile hotspot!

Are there any downsides to mobile broadband?

There are two main downsides to mobile broadband: connection stability and data allowances.

Despite its popularity, mobile broadband is still a little behind home broadband. The technology is improving all the time, but right now, it isn't always a smooth ride.

If you need a guaranteed stable, fast connection, you're probably best advised to look for a fixed-line broadband solution — although mobile broadband is a brilliant backup even then.

Speed can also be an issue for some. You'll find that the advertised speeds might not be achievable in practice. As a result, you may struggle with tasks such as large downloads (where download limits may also be a factor), streaming video and audio (such as using Spotify or the BBC iPlayer) or gaming.

Can I cancel my mobile broadband account?

Every mobile broadband provider is different. It's important you check the terms and conditions of a contract before committing.

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 Wi-Fi device and cancel your contract without having to pay extra.

If the internet service provider you've chosen doesn't offer this, remember that if you buy online, you’re covered by the UK's distance selling regulations. This means you can return the product within seven working days if it doesn't meet your expectations.

What happens if I cancel a mobile broadband contract early?

If you want to cancel your mobile broadband before the term is up, you may be responsible for paying the remaining fee for your subscription. This may be waived in exceptional circumstances (such as moving location), but providers deal with these on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, stopping payments altogether is very rare.

If you're completely new to mobile broadband, and you’re keen to have some flexibility, we recommend opting for a pay monthly data plan rather than a monthly contract.

Meet the author:

Online Editor

Broadband Genie's Editor, Emma Davenport, has been contributing to the site since 2007. She has 20 years of experience writing articles, guides and tutorials on consumer technology for magazines and online.

Specialist subject: Broadband advice for vulnerable people

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