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Best mobile broadband 2021: Get speedy 4G or 5G Internet at home or on the move

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Looking for a real alternative to your landline connection or wi-fi everywhere you go? We’ve got the mobile broadband deals for you

Once a niche service you might use on holidays or as a backup while moving home, mobile broadband has now hit the mainstream. On the one hand, a new generation of mobile 4G and 5G routers mean you can share one connection across a whole bunch of devices, which is perfect when you’re travelling, living somewhere where a fixed line isn’t an option, or moving into temporary digs. On the other hand, 4G and 5G connections are now a viable alternative to a traditional ADSL or fibre connection. In some cases, the best mobile broadband connections might even be faster than anything BT or its rivals can offer at your property. That’s only going to happen more often as 5G services roll out further and the technology matures.

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How to choose the best mobile broadband service for you

Until fairly recently, mobile broadband meant buying a pocket-sized router that worked with a 4G SIM to create a mobile wireless hotspot, which could be used to hook up your laptops, tablets and handheld games consoles to the internet while you were away from home.

Increasingly, though, we’re seeing fully featured designs that do everything you’d expect of a conventional ADSL or fibre router – only using a mobile connection, rather than a fixed line. So far, the limited speeds of 4G services have put such devices in a bit of a niche, but the advent of 5G changes that. When you can get up to 500Mbits/sec just by slotting in a SIM card, why wait for a supplier to bring a full fibre connection to your home?

These new home services tend to be more expensive than the old-school mobile broadband options, although they’ll come with a higher monthly data cap – or even unlimited usage. We’re now seeing mobile routers that support the latest 802.11ax (or Wi-Fi 6 standards), so you’re really not getting a second-rate experience in any way. Yet some of these mobile routers will still run from battery power, meaning you can take your internet with you if you go on holiday or move between two properties. Just bear in mind that, while you might get 4G or even 5G speeds in one place, it doesn’t mean you’ll find them everywhere you go.

The biggest issue here is coverage. You can now find a decent 4G signal across most of the UK, but the fastest 4G+ or LTE-A services, with speeds of over 40Mbits/sec, still tend to be available in only larger towns and cities, so check the coverage and compare predicted speeds for your location before you sign up. With 5G, coverage can be even more patchy. EE has the largest 5G network, stretching across 125 UK locations, but only a third of the population in each location might be within reach of a 5G signal. The situation with the other networks could well be worse, with less than 10% of an area actually getting 5G coverage in some cases. Even if you can get some 5G coverage with a 5G phone, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a consistent, fast connection with a 5G mobile broadband package.

All the same, the situation is improving, despite a slow in rollout caused by the government’s decision to remove Huawei equipment from the 5G networks. If 5G isn’t an option for you right now, then it could be later on in the year, so watch this space.

What else should I look out for?

Typically, 4G and 5G mobile services have a data allowance or usage cap, which may be somewhere between 50GB and 300GB. That will be fine for work, browsing and music streaming, but if you spend a lot of time watching streaming services or downloading PC and console games, then you need to look for an unlimited package. These are now more widely available than they were even a year ago, although they do come with a price premium and, in some cases, a longer contract.

Finally, take a good look at the router you’re getting with your package. The 4G and 5G home routers now have more features than they used to, with some including two or more Gigabit Ethernet ports and 802.11ax Wi-Fi. However, 4G services might come with a less well-equipped router, while routers designed primarily for mobile use might focus more on the compact size and battery life than the connectivity options.

READ NEXT: Want a fixed line? Here's our list of the best broadband providers

The best mobile broadband you can buy in 2021

1. Three Home Broadband: The best unlimited 4G/5G broadband

Price: From £14 to £30 per month | Buy now from Three

If you’re lucky enough to live in an area within Three’s 5G coverage, then its Home Broadband package is hard to beat. £30 a month (on a 24-month contract) buys you unlimited 5G broadband at the fastest speed available, with performance that can match and even beat many fibre options. Three promises average download speeds of 100Mbits/sec, and it’s not unknown for data speeds to peak above 400Mbits/sec. Some customers still complain of slow or inconsistent connections, though increased and improved coverage seems to be working in Three’s favour. The bundled 5G Hub supports download speeds of up to 2.33Gbits/sec and has two Gigabit Ethernet ports and 802.11ax Wi-Fi with 4 x 4 MIMO, so you have everything it takes to handle higher speeds.

Speeds have definitely improved over the last year, as has coverage, according to the latest figures from the research firm, RootMetrics. Coverage is now better in 15 out of 16 cities where RootMetrics tests, and download speeds are faster in ten of them. 5G median download speeds were over 100Mbits/sec in six cities – Belfast, Liverpool, Leicester, Manchester, Coventry and Birmingham – and over 90Mbits/sec in a further five. Three’s maximum recorded median download speed in London – 544Mbits/sec – was the fastest of any network. What’s more, investments in 5G spectrum should mean more areas seeing this kind of performance as more 5G services roll out.

Those outside of 5G areas aren’t forgotten. Three also offers an unlimited 4G+ Home Broadband plan, based on a choice of rebranded Huawei and ZTE routers. With this you can expect speeds of up to 600Mbits/sec, though most connections will be in the 50 to 100Mbits/sec range, and an Unlimited deal comes in at £14 to £17 a month on a 24 month contract with no upfront charge. The router only goes as far as dual-band Wi-Fi 5, but has four Gigabit Ethernet ports and an additional two ports for external antennae, if your reception needs a boost. Three’s UK Median Download Speeds were still behind those of EE and Vodafone in the last round of RootMetrics tests, but this remains a very competitive option if you’re stuck without fibre or can’t use a fixed line.

Buy now from Three


2. EE 5G Hub: The best premium 5G broadband option

Price: From £20 to £50 a month (plus £100 upfront) | Buy now from EE

If you’re prepared to pay more for your mobile broadband, EE has some compelling 5G deals. They’re based around the brand’s 5GEE WiFi router, with 802.11ax/Wi-Fi 6 connectivity and support for up to 64 devices in a 30 metre range, with the only serious limitation being the single Gigabit Ethernet port. EE has addressed one of our biggest criticisms by now offering unlimited 5G broadband for a reasonable £50 a month, although that comes with a 24-month contract and a £100 upfront charge. That’s less than EE used to charge for 100GB. If that’s still too expensive, however, 40GB and 100GB plans are available for £20 or £40 a month.

5G is at its best with 4K streaming and big downloads, and EE has the speeds to match. In the latest RootMetrics figures, it posted median download speeds of over 100Mbits/sec in all 16 cities where RootMetrics tests, not to mention the fastest speeds in six of those. It couldn’t match Three or Vodafone for the fastest maximum speed in London, but it still hit 422.6Mbits/sec. EE also wins on consistent and broad availability, reaching over 50% in 11 of the 16 cities, and nearly 65% in Nottingham and Birmingham. Like Three, EE has also invested in more 5G spectrum for improved coverage and performance in the future.

It's a premium option, and in some areas Three, O2 or Vodafone are going to be even faster, but EE delivers great 5G broadband in more places than anyone else and is definitely worth checking out.

Buy now from EE


3. Vodafone GigaCube: Solid 5G and 5G-ready mobile broadband

Price: From £30 to £60 a month (plus £100 upfront) | Buy now from Vodafone

Vodafone’s 5G GigaCube router comes with a choice of three monthly usage plans: you can get 100GB for a reasonable £30 a month, 200GB for £40 or unlimited usage for £60, each with a 24-month contract. The 100GB package comes with a £100 upfront fee, while the other two reduce this to just £50. This makes Vodafone slightly more expensive than Three and competitive with EE, especially as you’ll get 200GB on Vodafone for the same price as 100GB on EE.

Vodafone also gets bonus points for supplying an excellent TCL-built router. Up to 64 devices can connect simultaneously, and there’s support for the latest 802.11ax (“Wi-Fi 6”) standard, with 4x4 MIMO and 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. The GigaCube also packs in one Gigabit Ethernet port and a faster 2.5Gbit LAN/WAN port. And if you don’t have 5G in your area yet, you can get the same router with a 4G SIM, then upgrade later, with the monthly rates running from 100GB for £30 a month to 300GB for £50.

Vodafone’s 5G performance is impressive. RootMetrics’ most recent tests saw strong speeds across the board, with improved availability in 13 out of 16 cities and faster performance in 11. Its everyday 5G median download speed of 192.2Mbits/sec in Glasgow was the fastest reported of any network in any city, while its maximum download speed in London – 491.2Mbits/sec – was second only to Three’s 544.3Mbits/sec. Vodafone is also striding forwards on 4G performance, with the second fastest UK-wide median download speed of 25.2Mbits/sec putting it comfortably ahead of Three and Virgin Media/O2. 5G Coverage still needs work, only topping 50% in Liverpool, but if you can get them Vodafone’s 5G and 5G-ready services are shaping up very nicely indeed.

Buy now from Vodafone


4. EE 4GEE: The best 4G broadband on the move

Price: From £13 to £50 a month | Buy now from EE

There are at least two good reasons to pick EE’s 4GEE bundles if you’re after mobile broadband on the go. For one, RootMetrics has rated EE as the number one UK network for 4G performance for the eighth consecutive test period, with a UK-wide median download speed of 58.8Mbits/sec that’s over twice that of its nearest competitor, Vodafone. For another, coverage is excellent, and you shouldn’t find it hard to get a decent signal even in rural or coastal areas, although there will always be some remote spots or awkward places where it slips.

EE’s latest 4GEE WiFi Mini router is also pretty useful, with 802.11ac Wi-Fi and a 2150mAh battery that should last up to 12 days. It’s less than 10cm across and weighs only 85g. EE has expanded its range of plans since our last review, adding 40GB, 100GB and Unlimited data options on top of the old 4GB and 10GB packages, so you’ve got everything from a £13/4GB plan for occasional travellers to Unlimited mobile broadband for £50 a month. There are also more expensive one-month options, although these come with a £40 upfront cost.

EE also offers a 4GEE Home Router and a BT 4G Home Hub with an EE SIM. These take you from 100GB to Unlimited 18 month contracts for between £35 and £55 a month, along with 802.11ac WiFi. There’s stiffer competition here from Three and Vodafone, but EE nearly always wins when it comes to 4G connection speeds.

Buy now from EE


5. O2 Mobile Broadband: The best 5G broadband on the go

Price: From £26 to £39 a month | Buy now from O2

While other ISPs are focusing on 5G broadband for the home, O2 has it as a mobile option, selling a Huawei 5G Pocket Hotspot Pro mobile router on a 36-month plan. O2 runs it on the same split contract system as its mobile phones, with the main contract covering the device and a separate monthly rolling contract covering data, so you’re looking at between £26 a month with 15GB of data and £39 a month with 150GB. The router itself is pint-sized, just under 15cm long and weighs 280g, but it has built-in 802.11ac 2x2 MIMO Wi-Fi, along with an 8000mAh battery that can charge your phone while connected over USB Type-C.

Since its merger with Virgin Media, O2’s 5G coverage has improved dramatically – and, having splashed out on more 5G bandwidth, it should get even better as more services come online. Services are now available in all of the 16 UK cities where RootMetrics runs 5G tests, and it delivered the fastest Everyday 5G Median download speeds in nine of those, with speeds of over 100Mbits/sec in each one. Its speeds in Edinburgh and Glasgow – 163.3 and 179.3Mbits/sec – leave Three and even EE in the dust, although Vodafone is even speedier in the Scottish capital, at 192.2Mbits/sec.

Provided you’re in an area with decent coverage, this is a great option for 5G on the move – and it’s only going to get more useful as time goes on and 5G rolls out to more areas. EE still has the edge on mobile 4G broadband, but O2 is the top 5G option when you’re on the move.

Buy now from O2


6. Three: The best for unlimited data away from home

Price: From £12 to £26 per month | Buy now from Three

While Three is heavily pushing 5G as a home broadband option, it hasn’t forgotten those wanting mobile broadband for holidays, business trips or travel. Like O2 and Vodafone, it offers a range of 4G services using a Huawei E5783B micro-router. This combines 4G connectivity with a six-hour battery life and dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and supports up to 10 devices at once.

Plans start at £12 a month over 24 months with 10GB of data, but the real reason to get excited is the Unlimited option for £22 a month with a no upfront cost – plus some additional discounts for the first six months if you buy at the right time. You can stream and download as much as you like, and basically consume broadband much as you would at home.

Of course, your speeds will vary. In RootMetrics’ last round of 4G testing Three came third out of the big four, and its UK-wide median download speed of 19.1Mbits/sec is a long way behind the scores for EE (58.8Mbits/sec) and Vodafone (25.2Mbits/sec). However, Three does much better in some areas than others, so you may find speeds in excess of basic ADSL2+ or Fibre speeds, depending on where you are.

Both Vodafone and EE can go faster, while O2 has its super-powered 5G option. Yet Three’s a brilliant, cost-conscious alternative if you need all-you-can-eat data while you’re out and about.

Buy now from Three

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