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Beginner's guide to mobile broadband
Want to get online on the go?
Our definitive guide to mobile broadband covers unlimited usage, deals for iPad, use abroad and how speeds, prices and download allowances compare to fixed line connections.
Mobile broadband 101
Let's begin with a quick-start before getting into prices and other small print.
According to Ofcom, 27% of adults and 47% of teenagers now have a smartphone. It's now the most popular way to get online on the go.
As tethering - using a mobile phone as a modem - becomes easier smartphones can even increasingly connect laptops and other wi-fi enabled devices.
For those looking for larger download allowances, however, specific hardware remains the best option: dongles, those little USB sticks; external 3G modems (detailed here), credit card-sized 3G to wi-fi converters and microSIMs for 3G-enabled tablet computers like the iPad.
3G is the UK's standard shorthand for any mobile connection that transmits data.
However, in fact much of UK data is transmitted through 2G (traditionally voice frequency) in addition to EDGE, which strengthens signal.
The next step up is 3G. HSDPA (sometimes called 3.5G) is, very broadly, 3G's EDGE equivalent.
You can view 2G/3G coverage on provider sites and, roughly, on crowd-sourced signal maps like this one from the BBC .
Even faster, though, is 4G, the next step that mobile broadband is looking towards. 4G won't be widely available until after Ofcom's spectrum auction at the tail end of 2012.
Mobile phone contracts generally offer between 500MB and 3GB of data a month.
Mobile broadband modems generally offer a little more, from 1 to 15GB.
Unlimited mobile broadband is such a rarity that we've dedicated more detail to it below.
Mobile broadband providers have more or less given up advertising speeds.
In theory, a 3G HSDPA connection should be able to offer speeds of up to 7.2Mb but as more users clamber on to the networks, using up available bandwidth, the chances of it happening are only getting slimmer.
2010 research from Ofcom found that average actual speeds delivered to mobile broadband customers in off-peak periods were 1.9Mb while peak slowed the average down to 1.4Mb.
Since mobile broadband relies on the availability of 3G mobile network coverage there's also significant scope for speed changes and dropped connections.
In general, convenience currently beats speeds.
The latest mobile broadband PAYG and contract prices are available by searching above.
Contract prices start from £7.99 a month and run up to around £30 for the largest download allowances and those contracts which include an external modem.
The longer the contract - they generally last for between one month and 24 - the cheaper the monthly price.
PAYG modems are currently £10 - £20 for a USB device and considerably more £30 - £50 for an external device.
Topping up then costs between £2 - which would generally mean a download allowance of 500MB (about half a GB) that lasts 24 hours - and £15 - which would generally mean 3GB that lasts a week or a month.
Per GB, PAYG mobile broadband is always more expensive than in a contract and a landline connection will be much cheaper again.
The best way to reduce mobile broadband data prices is always to keep a close eye on usage.
There are some shortcuts to do that, however.
For example, Onavo is an app that compresses the data used by smartphones, reducing the data received and allowing users to 'double or even triple' their data plan.
It even gives consumers the opportunity to cut down more by providing reports on which apps are sucking the most data.
Co-founder, Guy Rosen assures users that all this processing will not affect the transmission time as any time increases are offset by the fact that less data is sent.
The catch is that, while Onavo is currently free, paid use is in the pipeline and international use is likely to cost around 10 dollars a month (£6ish).
That means the app will only be useful where data costs are big (on use abroad, for example).
Unlimited mobile broadband
Unlimited mobile broadband is a rare breed.
Three's One plan offers unlimited mobile broadband and the provider's other pay monthly customers can add unlimited data for £3 a month.
Their PAYG phone customers can add monthly unlimited data for £15 a month.
T-Mobile also offer unlimited mobile broadband contracts. However, the contracts do have a 500MB limit on streaming video and downloading and uploading files.
In both cases users can tether the phone and effectively turn it into a modem to make the best use of the data.
The closest thing to unlimited mobile broadband right now for external and USB modems are Three's 15Gb mobile broadband deals.
The offers available with a USB modem are as follows:
|Contract length||Usage allowance||Price/month|
iPad mobile broadband
Mobile broadband for iPad is provided via a microSIM and is, again, a bit of a different story.
The advantage, apart from the fact that, unlike a modem, it won't stick out and ruin your nice clean lines - is much lower upfront costs.
iPad mobile broadband microSIMs are available completely free from O2 and Orange and users won't pay extra for the SIM when they sign up for a Vodafone contract or Three deal, they just need to buy some usage in advance.
Know your usage!
There's one big danger when using mobile broadband for iPad: paying outside of allowance.
Overstepping an allowance causes providers to come down on their users with a lack of subtlety that would make a tonne of bricks blush.
Look at Orange's 'pay as you use' plan, for example. The concept sounds reasonable enough but at 5p per MB you'd end up paying £40 for less than 1GB, way over the odds.
Users who overstep an allowance on a 30-day contract will be charged:
- Orange: 2p per MB
- 3: 10p per MB
- Vodafone: £15 per GB (1p per MB) or
- O2: 2.4p per MB
All in all, 30-day plans are much better value for money. These are available with usage allowances up to 10GB a month and as low as 1 or 2GB.
Mobile vs home broadband
Even as the number of mobile broadband connections threatens to overtake landline ones, it's far from replacing landline connections.
As we've seen, 3G connections are slower, more expensive per GB and likely to have larger problems with dropped connections.
Even so, however, the number of mobile broadband users can only go up meaning that the mobile broadband market is becoming just as important and prevalent as landline broadband has become today.