Are external mobile broadband modems any good?

external broadband modems

As our smartphones, tablet computers and other devices multiply so, very easily, can contracts or pay as you go (PAYG) cash to supply them with data.

That's where external mobile broadband modems come in.

These small devices simply convert a 3G signal into wi-fi, creating a portable mini hotspot which can be used to connect multiple devices to the same data connection.

This is our guide to external modems: what they cost, how well they work and why they aren't more popular.

External modems 101

Most of the major UK network operators offer external modems on both rolling monthly and long term contracts.

Here's what they're offering as of the byline date of this article:

Network Upfront cost Monthly cost/data
Vodafone
(R206 mobile wi-fi)
Free in contract only £8.50/1GB £12.75/2GB
£17/4GB £25.50/10GB
Vodafone
(R215 4G mobile wi-fi)
Free in contract or £39 £8.50/1GB £12.75/2GB
£17/4GB £25.50/10GB
EE pay monthly
(Huawei E5776 mobile wi-fi)
Free in contract or £29.99 £10/1GB £15/3GB
£30/25GB £50/50GB
(more contracts available)
O2 PAYG
(ZTE MF60 mobile wi-fi)
£50 Top up from £5
Three PAYG
(Huawei E5220 mobile wi-fi)
£49.99 Top up from £5
Three pay monthly
(Huawei E5220 mobile wi-fi)
Free in contract only £10.87/1GB £18.99/15GB
(more contracts available)

External mobile broadband modems work in a very similar way to phones that can tether and to 3G USB dongles: they receive a 3G and/or 4G signal and turn it into a signal that other devices can pick up.

In the case of phones it's wi-fi or Bluetooth; in the case of dongles it's the USB signal and for external modems it's wi-fi.

Other mobile devices such as your smartphone or tablet computer can then recognise the device as a wi-fi hotspot and connect to the internet.

So what happened?

So, if external mobile broadband modems are so handy, why don't we all have one? What happened?

The main problem, we think, is that external modems ended up being a solution to a problem that very few people have.

As we'll see below, more convenient alternatives like tethering or free wi-fi have gained ground over the past few years, allowing those with multiple devices to get online on the go with relative ease and for free.

In addition, smartphone use has gone through the roof.

So not only are multiple device users rarely without a data connection, they can often use tethering to get that same data connection to any wi-fi only devices they may need to use.

Price is also a major factor.

Had external modems grown in popularity their price would have come down over time. As it worked out, a PAYG device still costs an eye-watering £50 - £70 while contracts just add that figure to the monthly price.

Add to that expense the fact that unlimited mobile broadband with an external modem is a very rare breed indeed and it's no wonder that many people who were planning to find a way to connect their laptop and their iPad settled just on getting the laptop online and paying £5 less a month (and sidestepping those potential extra data charges as well).

It also doesn't help that, as slow as 3G is, external modems make it slower.

Three's HSPA+ technology helps but both the 3G to wi-fi conversion process and wi-fi signals themselves are notoriously inefficient which slows connections.

Some networks now offer 4G with their external modems which mitigates this problem and may lead to mobile broadband becoming an alternative to fixed line, as it has in some areas already, but, even then, the speeds from the modem are likely to be slower than they would be on a smartphone on the same network.

Finally, most wireless receivers run on battery power - bound to die just when you need the internet most.

The alternatives

For those with multiple data contracts for their multiple devices, external modems can be a simple solution.

However, as we've seen, alternatives abound.

Tethering

Some smartphones allow users to use their phone as a modem, a process known as tethering.

Again, this is a good option for those who already have a data contract.

However, the downside is that the majority of network operators have started to add on additional charges to the standard mobile tariff for tethering and going over a data allowance, much easier when you're using 3G on a computer rather than on a phone, is always very expensive.

See our full guide to tethering over here, we include all the charges from the various networks.

Three are currently the only network to offer tethering with unlimited data, though that is due to end in early 2014.

Free wi-fi?

Check out our cheap and free wi-fi guide, available here, for tips and tricks on finding hotspots that could allow you to connect several devices far more cheaper than mobile wi-fi.

Free wi-fi isn't as reliable as an external modem, but it does beat having to carry a mini modem around everywhere.

A 3G USB dongle

Yes, yes we know: with a 3G dongle users can only connect one device to the internet at a time.

But there is an exception to that rule.

Dongle Docks are basically external modems that work via a USB modem device.

For those tied into a USB stick contract or who just don't want the hassle of a second device this could be an excellent solution.

Unfortunately, the docks are about the same price as just buying an external modem so there's little advantage there.

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