There was a time when computers were bulky and cumbersome, and internet connections required a physical wired connection, which meant the internet only lived in our offices and computer rooms.
Web technology and computer hardware has come a long way since then, allowing us to take the web with us wherever we go thanks to mobile broadband. But exactly how does mobile broadband work, who is it good for and who has the best mobile broadband deals?
This guide will answer all these questions, giving you a complete guide to mobile broadband, from dongles to downloads.
What is mobile broadband?
Mobile broadband doesn't refer to internet access on your mobile phone, but rather the ability to connect your laptop or netbook to the web using mobile phone signals.
Now, not all laptops and netbooks have this kind of connection built-in, and instead require a mobile broadband 'dongle' which plugs into a USB port on your computer.
You get a dongle from a mobile phone network, and connect to the web via that network. This means you can surf the web anywhere, from a train to the middle of a forest if you like: as long as you can get a mobile signal, you can get mobile broadband.
Why use mobile broadband?
If your job or lifestyle demands you travel around a lot, say for example, attending business meetings, you might find a lot of your time spent on public transport. Having a mobile broadband connection would allow you to work online on a train, for instance.
Sure your smartphone might also give you access to the web, but some phones don't support flash and won't render some website fully. Also, editing documents with a full keyboard and track pad mouse is a lot easier than on a four inch screen – and that's assuming your phone even supports the file formats of the documents you need to edit.
Similarly, if your work takes you to remote places where you can't get a wired or wi-fi connection, mobile broadband would allow you to carry on working. A good example might be a newspaper photographer in a rural area, who would be able to send pictures back to the office using mobile broadband.
You might be interested in mobile broadband if you're a student living in a student house, as you won't have the hassle of signing up for a broadband contract with your housemates, splitting the bills between you or getting permission from the landlord for any cable installation.
An advantage of mobile broadband is that it's relatively cheap. You won't have the expense of landline and mobile broadband tariffs can cost as little as under £10 per month.
Mobile broadband disadvantages
Web access from anywhere sounds good on paper, but in practice your access is restricted to wherever you can get a signal. The strength and stability of that signal also determines the quality of your connection.
This could be a problem if you're travelling on a train as you'll be moving through areas of varying signal strength and quality at speed. If you're in the middle of uploading or downloading something important, your connection could be interrupted.
When you sign up for a dongle, you'll notice deals advertise speeds of 'up to' 4Mb (Megabits per second) or 'up to' 7Mb, but this doesn't guarantee you'll get this speed.
The faster your connection is, the quicker you'll be able to upload and download files. This means web pages will load faster and downloads will be completed quicker. Similarly, if you're uploading pictures to Facebook or Flickr, a faster connection will get your pictures online quicker.
The other disadvantage is usage allowances. You're unlikely to find any 'unlimited' mobile broadband deals as you might with regular broadband. Instead you'll get a Gigabyte allowance of something like 1GB, 2GB or 5GB.
The bigger the allowance is, the more expensive the deal will be. While casual web surfers will probably be fine with a 1GB allowance, anyone looking to download music and video or spend a lot of time online will probably have to pay more for a bigger allowance.
What do you need to set up mobile broadband?
Basically, a fairly up-to-date laptop or netbook with USB ports for plugging in a mobile broadband dongle. Your computer will have to meet the minimum requirements set out by the provider.
If your computer uses something like Windows XP, Vista or 7, you probably won't have any compatibility issues, but if your computer runs some sort of Linux operating system (as many netbooks do) or you use a Mac, make sure to check the dongle is compatible with your operating system.
Some networks will sell in a laptop or netbook, or even give you one for free when you sign up for a mobile broadband, much in the same way as pay monthly mobile phone contracts often offer a free phone handset.
A free laptop might seem like a good deal, but you should look at the monthly payments and the length of time the contract lasts for, as you could ends up paying well over the odds for your 'free' computer.
It is advisable to install security software on your laptop and ensure it is kept updated. Thanks to broadband we can do all manner of things online, which has also meant we divulge more of our personal information online. It's important to keep this data secure by using software to keep your computer and data protected against cyber criminals.
What is a dongle?
We've used the word dongle a couple of times in this guide so far, but what exactly is a dongle?
A dongle looks like a flash memory pen drive you might use to save files onto, and plugs into the USB ports on your computer in the same way. Instead of containing flash memory, however, it basically houses a modem which connects wirelessly to a phone network. The dongle is powered by your computer, so there is no need to worry about batteries or charging.
If your laptop or netbook doesn't have mobile broadband connectivity already built-in, you'll need a dongle to use mobile broadband. You can get one from a mobile provider when you sign up for a mobile broadband deal.
As dongles use mobile network signals, you'll be at the mercy of your provider's mobile broadband coverage in the area you're using your computer. Most network providers have a tool on their website which will estimate the coverage in your area and what speed you'll get based on the postcode.
Dongles can offer connection speeds of up to 21Mb, but the industry average is a lowly 1.5Mb, so don't go expected super-fast broadband speeds.
Who offers the best mobile broadband packages?
As you'd expect, all the major networks like O2, Three, Vodafone, T-Mobile and Orange offer dongles with their mobile broadband deals, ranging in speed capabilities. Broadband dongles are often given away for free when you sign up for mobile broadband.
The best deals will depend on how you plan to use mobile broadband, because you'll have to choose a speed and a usage limit. Higher speeds and usage limits translate to higher monthly payments.
It is possible to get pay as you go (PAYG) mobile broadband deals, but it's important to shop around as these kinds of deals come in all shapes and sizes. Whatever they're branded as, the thing all they have in common is that you pay in advance for either a data allowance in GB or an amount of days' usage, after which you'll have to 'top up' your allowance.
Each provider will have its own rules regarding cancellation of the mobile broadband contract, for instance if you're on a rolling 1 month contract you may need to give 30 days' notice to end it.
You can compare mobile broadband deals on our mobile broadband channel. There you'll find options to toggle between pay monthly and pay as you go deals, as well as deals with and without a laptop included.
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