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What is mobile broadband?

Once you’re used to having high speed internet access at home, it’s pretty useful to have it everywhere you go on your laptop and mobile phone.

WiFi hotspots can only get you so far, and mobile broadband is a catch-all term for any internet access using mobile phone networks.

Mobile broadband doesn’t deliver speeds in the same league as cable or DSL, but it’s very useful if you have to travel a lot on business, or for students and others who don’t have a fixed residence.

Most new mobile phones, tablets and some laptops have mobile broadband built-in, and all you need is a SIM or micro-SIM card. It can also be accessed using a dongle or broadband stick that plugs into your laptop’s USB port, or a plug-in PCMCIA card for older laptops.

You can also share a mobile internet connection over WiFi, either by ‘tethering’ from your mobile phone, or with personal hotspot like the MiFi from 3. Both of these methods create a secure WiFi hotspot that you can sign into from other devices.

As with mobile phones, mobile broadband comes in both contract and pay-as-you-go flavours, and you will need to balance factors like network coverage against download limits and the types of connection on offer, such as dongle or MiFi.

Coverage & Speed

Mobile broadband coverage isn’t as good as voice, but it is improving and most urban areas, main roads and motorways are well-blanketed.

Today’s mobile broadband services are usually 3G, but this includes a family of standards which offer top speeds from  384kbps to 42Mbps. When Three launched the first 3G service it used UMTS which had a maximum speed of 384kbps. Current networks use either HSDPA with a top speed of 7.2Mbps or HSPA with a top speed of 14.4Mbps, which is sometimes also called 3.5G. To confuse matters, Three is upgrading to an HSPA+ network later this year, which will reach 42Mbps, which it is calling both 3.5G and 4G.

In late 2012, Orange and T-Mobile will have the UK’s first ‘true’ 4G network, also called Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology. This is capable of exceeding 50Mbps in ideal conditions.

None of these headline speeds bear any relation to real-life experiences, and on most HSDPA networks the reality is usually 1-2Mbps unless you’re in an area of very good coverage with few people sharing the same network cell. HSPA networks like Three usually manage around 4-5Mbps in practise.

Most mobile broadband contracts are capped at anything from 500MB to 5GB per month, which will soon max out if you’re using it for streaming audio like Spotify – let alone watching BBC iPlayer. You can buy unlimited downloads as a monthly add-on with some contracts, but even these will have a ‘fair usage’ limit.

Some connections also come bundled with WiFi hotspot access with services like BT Openzone or The Cloud, so you can get a high speed, unlimited connection at coffee shops, railway stations, airports and other locations.

 What to look for:

  • Contract or  PAYG?
  • How good is their cover where I am?
  • What is their top broadband speed – divide by three for a realistic average?
  • How much can I download every month?
  • What sort of connection do I want – SIM-only, dongle or MiFi?
  • Does it include WiFi hotspot access?

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