What to look for when choosing mobile broadband

A woman using a laptop with wireless internet

More and more people are choosing to use mobile broadband.

Mobile broadband connects to the internet using a small dongle which you plug into your computer or a SIM which you insert into your tablet.

It can be easy to use and allows you to access the internet whilst on the move. You can also access the internet through smartphones but this isn't covered by this guide.

Costs

You can get a pay-as-you-go deal or a pay monthly contract. Depending on the tariff, you may need to pay a one-off fee for a dongle. Some mobile broadband providers offer a free or cheaper laptop or tablet in exchange for signing up to a longer and/or more expensive deal. Some also offer other benefits like WiFi access. Make sure that both the device and the service are right for you.

Contract lengths

Pay-as-you-go doesn't involve signing up to a long contract and can be good value if you're only going to be using the service every now and then but check what the upfront charges are because you may have to pay for a dongle.

If you sign up to a contract then check how long your contract will be. The mobile broadband market is changing rapidly and if you sign up to a long contract now you may not be able to pick a better deal at a later date. On the other hand, longer contracts can be cheaper and you may not have to pay for a dongle.

Coverage in your area

Before signing up to a service, check carefully what coverage you can get. Most providers have a website where you can type in postcodes of places you will be using the service (e.g. home, work, college) and see how good the coverage will be. Remember though that these websites are only guides and can't give you an exact report of your expected coverage. For example, you may have problems getting a signal if there is something which blocks your mobile signal e.g. a building between you and the transmitter.

Just because you have good coverage on your mobile phone, it doesn't mean you will have good coverage on your dongle – even if it's on the same network. One way of testing whether you can get a good signal is to use any cooling-off period offered by the provider to test the service to see if it works properly – if not you can get your money back. Check what the cooling-off period is before you sign up. Ofcom has published a consumer guide on improving your mobile signal.

What speed will I get?

Speeds can vary a lot depending on where you are and according to how many people are using the service in your area, so you'll probably find that speeds drop at peak times such as evenings. Try to make full use of any cooling-off period to make sure you're getting the speeds you want. Ofcom has published research on mobile broadband speeds.

Avoiding high usage charges

Most packages have a limit on how much you can use each month. Before signing up, try to work out what you'll be using your mobile broadband service for and estimate how much you will use to make sure you're on the right package.

Some services charge a lot if you go over your monthly usage limit, so check what these excess usage charges are.

Also have a look to see whether your provider lets you check how much data you are using or sends you emails or texts if you are close to going over your limit.

Mobile or fixed broadband?

Some people have both fixed and mobile broadband, others have just one service. Mobile broadband can be used outside your home without a land line, but it is usually slower than fixed broadband and comes with smaller usage allowances. So if you use lots of big files (such as TV or online games) or hate waiting for web pages to download then fixed broadband might be more suitable for you. But if you just want to check emails or use the internet every now and then, and want the added flexibility of being mobile, then mobile broadband could be a good alternative but be careful to look at costs and availability of each further.

Remember though that your actual performance for both fixed and mobile broadband depends very much on your location. Before making a decision, you should check the speed available on your line from fixed broadband providers (who will be able to give you an estimate of line speed, either by calling them or by visiting their website), as well as checking the level of mobile broadband coverage offered by mobile operators.

Using mobile broadband abroad

You can use some mobile broadband services abroad but the costs are often very high so check carefully what these charges are before you travel.

Further advice

The Mobile Broadband Group has published Principles of Good Practice for marketing mobile broadband services which the main mobile operators have agreed to follow which can be found here: www.mobilebroadbandgroup.com