It’s not an exaggeration to say that we spend a lot of time online, and that for some of that time, we're out of the house, finding ourselves in need of an internet connection. And, even when we're at home, we may be struggling to get a reliable broadband connection where we live. Whatever the reason, mobile broadband can be a convenient and simple way to get online no matter where we are.
But what is mobile broadband, and how does it work?
How does mobile broadband work?
Mobile broadband uses the same signals that serve mobile phones, and so usually operate from one of the UK's 'big four' mobile operators: EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone.
Mobile broadband uses these networks' 4G and 5G data services to send and receive information. Because this information is transferred wirelessly, there are some differences mobile broadband has compared to regular home broadband.
For example, if you live in an area that is covered by 4G (or the faster 5G network), you may experience speeds faster than that of a fixed-broadband connection. The average download speeds with 4G is 24Mbps - at least two times faster than a standard fixed-line ADSL broadband connection. Speeds with 5G average around 150Mbps which is faster than partial-fibre and even some full fibre home broadband connections. However, the speeds you'll get will depend on your location and the network operator you're using.
Mobile broadband: A history of 1G to 5G
So, we now know how mobile broadband works, but how did we get here?
Since the first mobile phone call was made in 1973, mobile network technology has continued to grow and evolve - reshaping our world in unprecedented ways.
Now, with the 5th generation (5G) of mobile networks being rolled out across the globe, it’s useful to see where wireless standards have brought us and where it's taking us next.
1G - First Generation
The first generation of wireless mobile technology - 1G - was launched by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) in Tokyo in 1979. By 1984, NTT had rolled out 1G to cover the whole of Japan.
In 1983, the US approved the first 1G operations, and Motorola's DynaTAC became one of the first mobile phones to be adopted for widespread use in America. The UK rolled out its own 1G network a few years later.
However, 1G technology suffered from a number of drawbacks. Coverage was poor and quality of calls was low. Calls also weren't encrypted, meaning anyone with a radio scanner could listen in on a call.
2G - Second Generation
2G was launched under the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) standard in Finland in 1991. Unlike 1G, calls could be encrypted and were clearer with less static.
2G was considered groundbreaking because for the first time, people could send text messages (SMS), picture messages, and multimedia messages (MMS) through their phones.
3G - Third Generation
3G was launched in Japan by NTT Docomo in October 2001. The UK caught up in 2003, with the launch of 3G services thanks to Hutchison Whampoa - which owns the mobile network Three.
When it came to data transfers, 3G was four times faster than 2G, leading to the availability of new services such as watching mobile TV, participating in video conferences, and video streaming.
4G - Fourth Generation
After gaining regulatory approval, 4G was launched in the UK in March 2012 by Orange and T-Mobile UK. On October 3 the same year, EE followed suit, launching its 4G services across 16 major cities. O2 and Vodafone then launched their 4G networks in August 2013.
The introduction of 4G has allowed for fast mobile web access, facilitating online gaming, streaming videos in HD and high quality video conferencing.
5G - Fifth Generation
In May 2019, EE was the first mobile operator to launch 5G services in the UK, covering six cities. By the end of 2019, EE was providing coverage to 50 cities and towns. Vodafone also launched its 5G services in 2019, offering network coverage in more than 12 cities including Birmingham and Bristol. By October the same year, BT and O2 had also launched their 5G networks.
As it continues to be rolled out across the UK, 5G - with its ultrafast speeds - is beginning to become a viable alternative for those who can't gain access to partial-fibre or full fibre fixed-line home broadband connections.
Will 5G replace fixed-line home broadband?
With its ultrafast speeds, 5G will be - and in some areas already is - available in locations where standard (ADSL) and superfast (FTTC) broadband is still difficult to get.
However, as 5G technology advances, so too does fixed-line broadband technology. Full fibre gigabit broadband access continues to be rolled-out to more-and-more homes and businesses across the UK, and, in many areas, full fibre is not only easier, but cheaper for local governments to install than 5G broadcast towers.
Added to this is the next iteration of home broadband technology, Wi-Fi 6. Wi-Fi 6 will be capable of delivering Wi-Fi speeds 40% faster than what is currently available with full fibre. It will also be able to handle more devices connecting to its network at once. This will not only benefit homes, but areas with public Wi-Fi access, such as airports and entertainment venues.
Why should I choose mobile broadband over home broadband?
One reason to opt for mobile broadband is for the flexibility and convenience it offers. With either a mobile broadband dongle, MiFi, or simply a data-SIM enabled device, you can access the internet anywhere you can get a mobile signal.
And, for those who live in rural areas, where fixed-line broadband may be difficult to get, mobile broadband can be particularly beneficial.
This is because many rural areas in the UK still struggle to get access to fibre broadband. Even for those who can get either standard (ADSL) or superfast (FTTC) broadband connections, if they live a long distance from the nearest exchange or green cabinet, speeds could be considerably slowed. But if these areas are covered by 4G or 5G mobile networks, mobile broadband may offer faster and more reliable speeds than these fixed-line connections.
What kind of deals are available with mobile broadband?
Most mobile broadband deals will be available on either one-month rolling, or longer 12-24 month contracts. Also, although there are some unlimited packages available, most tend to have data usage caps. Therefore, it's important to compare mobile broadband packages carefully to ensure you're selecting the right option for your needs.
What is the best way to get connected with mobile broadband?
The most common way to get mobile internet access is through using a mobile broadband dongle.
Also known as a 'Wi-Fi dongle', 'USB modem', or 'internet stick', a dongle is a small, internet-connected device you plug into the USB port on your PC or laptop. It connects to the internet the same way as your mobile phone - via 3G, 4G, and 5G networks.
The downside to internet dongles is they can only be used with one device at a time.
Pros and Cons of broadband dongles
Ease of use
Set-up for mobile broadband using a dongle can be achieved in a matter of minutes and doesn't require a visit from an engineer.
Mobile dongles can be taken with you anywhere. As long as you can get network signal, a mobile broadband dongle provides the flexibility of being able to access the internet whenever you need.
Dongles run on the battery from your PC or laptop, so you don't need an additional charger.
Slower speeds depending on location
The continued rollout of 5G means that a USB internet dongle is now a serious alternative to fixed-line home broadband. However, much like full fibre broadband, 5G is still limited to where its available in the UK and current speeds with 4G mobile dongles are, for the most part, slower than average speeds found with most partial-fibre home broadband plans.
Lack of coverage
The strength of the connection your internet dongle provides will depend on the mobile phone reception in your area. If you already struggle to get a signal on your phone when making calls at home, you're unlikely to be able to get a good signal with mobile broadband.
Unlike fixed-line home broadband plans where downloads are unlimited, mobile broadband usually has a cap on how much you can use.
While some operators might offer mobile broadband plans with unlimited data, you'll likely have to pay a premium.
Other ways to connect to mobile broadband
Aside from a mobile broadband dongle, there are a couple of other ways you can get internet access on-the-go.
Similar to a dongle, a MiFi is a pocket-sized device that connects you to the internet over 3G, 4G, or 5G networks.
However, unlike a USB internet dongle - which only offers an internet connection to the one PC or laptop connected to it - a MiFi acts as a router. It does this by sending out a wireless mobile broadband signal that can be shared between multiple devices at the same time.
However, be aware that data caps will likely be imposed on any MiFi prepaid offer or plan you choose, so consider carefully if you want to share your monthly allowance across multiple devices.
Similar to MiFi, "tethering" allows you to turn your phone into a portable Wi-Fi router.
Most smartphones have a tethering option activated via settings. Once enabled, it creates a wireless network that other Wi-Fi enabled devices within its limited radius can then connect to.
It's important to remember that not all network providers will include tethering as part of your monthly data allowance, so it can be very expensive.
Also, tethering uses more data if you connect larger devices such as a laptop or iPad. This is because websites will load in their desktop form, rather than in smartphone mode.
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