Mobile broadband – It still needs work

The advent of superfast 4G connectivity comes as a double-edged sword. For the customer this is the ideal solution for that traditional “last mile” issue. For the provider, you have to provide a service which is priced to discourage it being used as an always-on fixed-line broadband replacement.

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Looking around at the options, there’s only really one provider offering truly unlimited data via a dongle or data SIM. The choices, though, are varied and a little confusing. Choose fixed-line broadband or fibre and you have a wide-range of supposedly “unlimited” deals, but there’s always a large dose of “traffic management” going on, especially in peak times when people are streaming TV and movie content through on-demand services in the evening.

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Getting your laptop or tablet online when you’re actually out of the house needs a certain amount of planning. Merely “tethering” – i.e. sharing your phones’ data connection over a WiFi hotspot – can quickly result in a rather large and sometimes unexpected bill arriving. Sure, your mobile data plan might say “unlimited” but, deep down in the small print, you could find a caveat stating that tethering isn’t allowed, or it’s charged separately – and that can rack up your charges pretty quickly indeed.

So, the options then…

- Using a tablet / laptop away from the home or company WiFi rarely.

In this case tethering could be a solution, or you could hunt down a local restaurant, pub or supermarket offering free WiFi. You’ll usually have to put your email address and / or phone number on a mailing list, but it’s a decent trade-off for getting online when you absolutely have to.

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You can also have a look at Pay As You Go data SIM cards or rolling monthly plans if you’re going to need that WiFi a little more often. It’s also worth checking out solutions for in the car or other mobile broadband solutions, such iiNet mobile broadband. Find out if your usage is essential. Find out if you can do that tablet or laptop-related task on your smartphone. If you can, it might be more worthwhile getting a smartphone with a slightly larger screen so you can feel more at home.

- Using a tablet / laptop more often.

In this case you’re going to want either a data SIM on a rolling monthly contract or 24 month deal. You need to consider roughly how much data you’re going to consume first, so look initially at a monthly rolling deal to see how much data you burn through.

Tethering just isn’t an option here unless you’re..

a) Willing to have your phone on or near a charger quite often (the battery will get caned).
b) Have a decent mobile plan with tethering included.

Just recently we’ve seen an increase in the amount of MiFi and car-based mobile WiFi solutions appearing on the market, so we are edging nearer to the more worry-free always-on data connection on more devices, but there’s still a need to be cautious if you just want to get online via a tablet or laptop through your phone.

Check out the solutions. Dongles are one solution, but check the coverage first and don’t just take the online coverage map as the answer either. If you want mobile broadband in an office or building you really should ask someone to have a look at their signal strength on the network you’re looking at. As an example, I could get full HSDPA on both EE and Three outside my old workplace but, when I walked inside, I was down to either one bar or GPRS. O2 and Vodafone seemed to penetrate the building better and provided better data speeds, but I only found that out by looking at the signal strength on various mobile phones in the office. If I’d dived into a contract straight away it would’ve been a waste of cash.

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If you’re mobile more often, Three still gives some of the best 3G data coverage. Their network was built with data in mind and you’ll rarely find problems. For additional speed, you’ll need to look at big 4G networks like EE, but pricing and data usage need to be considered before you dive in.

To sum up, check your usage. Ensure that you absolutely need mobile broadband and check the coverage first. Do some research into your existing kit. Check if your tablet, Chromebook or laptop has a SIM slot. If not, you’ll either need a dongle or a MiFi unit. Then, simply shop around. Find the best deal for the data you want. Comparison sites are a good start, but this regularly updated thread at HotUKDeals is a great place to find a bargain plan.

In an ideal world we’d have all this laid out more simply. We wouldn’t have small print and “gotchas” or huge bills for tethering on the wrong plans. However, we’re not quite there yet. For the most part you’re going to be looking at a new SIM, a new package and a new setup if you want mobile data on another device regularly.