If you're not in the position to have a physical broadband connection, a mobile broadband connection could be your best option.
How does mobile broadband work?
Mobile broadband connections use the same wireless networks as used by 3G and 4G mobile telephone networks, eschewing the calls/texts part of that technology to deliver broadband services across the air. This has the distinct advantage against what are generally called "fixed line" services in that they’re truly mobile; as long as you have your connection device, whether that’s a USB modem, Wi-Fi hotspot device or even a smartphone acting as a hotspot, you should generally be able to connect to a mobile broadband network for data access on the go.
For more on the differences between 3G and 4G networks in Australia, read our comprehensive guide to 3G/4G in Australia here.
How fast is Mobile broadband?
The speed of mobile broadband is highly relative, because it’s both a shared spectrum -- which means that your actual speed experience will depend a great deal on what others in the same mobile tower location radius are actually doing online as well -- and one that’s dependent upon both the technology in the device you’re connecting to the network and the network itself.
As an example, Telstra’s 3G network is capable of typical speeds up to 20Mbps, while its latest "4GX" network is set to deliver speeds of up to 1GBps by the year’s end. Both figures are quoted as "up to" figures, however, because they’re theoretical maximums that can vary a lot depending on location, local usage figures and device compatibility.
You’ll often see a mobile broadband device -- or even just a smartphone -- described as a "CAT X" device, where X is a number that might not on the surface tell you much about its expected speed throughput. In this case, CAT is short for category, with expected speed maximums associated with each category level. That has to be matched against the capabilities of a given network as well, but even if you connect a high category device to a low speed network, you’ll never get additional speed. However, the CAT rating does describe the maximum expected throughput on that device. As you go up the speed ratings, carriers usually merge different channels or sections of spectrum in order to enable higher theoretical speeds, which often means that the availability of highest-speed mobile broadband is very much focused around metropolitan centres.
Where is Mobile Broadband available?
Mobile broadband services map pretty much exactly to the coverage maps that mobile providers offer for their voice services, and that’s in no way accidental. As we’ve seen voice become much more of a commodity product, with many telcos offering unlimited national call packages, the race is on to provide better data services.
The catch here is that while mobile broadband is mobile, it’s subject to significantly more variance than any fixed line product, whether it’s a matter of transitory congestion due to user overload, or more permanent issues such as buildings or natural features inhibiting radio transmissions. As such, while carrier maps give a good broad general overview of mobile broadband availability, actual accessibility can vary widely.
How can I compare Mobile broadband plans?
Mobile broadband networks speed is always referenced with the qualifier of "up to", and as previously noted, that’s dependent upon network, infrastructure and equipment modifiers. Typically speaking, you should get better data throughput via a 4G connection, and especially an LTE-Advanced connection such as Telstra’s "4GX" (itself just a marketing term and not a standard of any type), than via a 3G connection. The flipside of that is that many providers on 3G only connections, such as all of Telstra’s current wholesale customers and some Vodafone MVNOs, may find that the relatively low speed is offset by the cost.
Mobile data is a serious quantity more expensive than comparable fixed line services. There’s no such thing as an "unlimited" mobile broadband plan at this stage in Australia, and it’s unlikely that we’ll see such plans emerge.
As such, the cost of data is a key comparative criteria. While that cost does differ by provider, many services now offer a flat $10/GB pricing for any excess usage above your quota.
Will I need a new modem for Mobile broadband?
If you’re transferring from an ADSL, NBN or Cable connection, then you’ll need a device to act as your mobile hotspot. Most providers who sell explicitly "mobile broadband" plans will include a hotspot in the contract, either at a reduced price or free, although this isn’t universal. If you need wider Wi-Fi spread for your hotspot, some models can optionally be placed within larger antenna arrays to expand their local Wi-Fi reach, or improve overall mobile broadband reception.
Your other option here if you have a reasonably recent smartphone doing nothing else is to put it on a charger, throw a standard SIM in it and find a mobile plan which includes enough data for your needs. The one notable downside here is that the Wi-Fi broadcast range of most smartphones isn’t spectacular, as it’s presumed most people using them as hotspots will probably have them very close to their tethered devices.
What other extras should I look for?
- Included hotspot If you’re going on a mobile broadband contract, it’s worth checking if your provider will give you a hotspot as part of the plan, and what its maximum speeds will be.
- Bundling discounts Most mobile broadband services sit within the general mobile category of each provider. If you have multiple services with the same provider, check for discounts.
- Quota free content It’s pretty rare for providers to offer quota-free mobile broadband areas, but it’s not unheard of for certain types of content. Knowing what that content is, and whether it interests you is another factor to consider.