What is mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband is an increasingly optional service but one that can simplify your mobile data needs.

Published on November 17, 2021
5 min read

As smartphones get smarter, it’s increasingly harder to make a case for mobile broadband. After all, sharing your phone data via tethering, which turns your handset into a hotspot, is a viable way to share your monthly mobile data with whomever you’d like.

At a stretch, mobile data can be considered a basic NBN alternative (though we wouldn’t recommend seeing it in this light) and there are some great data SIM plans to choose from. If you don’t have a lot of data to share or you want a convenient way to share out-and-about data with multiple devices, it’s worth considering a mobile broadband plan.

Mobile broadband plans

We have 20 mobile broadband plans we track in our comparison engine, which range from limited data to a whole lot. You might want a wee bit of data to share each month, which is where you’d look at the Spintel Mobile Broadband 4GB plan for under $10 a month. Alternatively, you can go the other way and spend $85 a month on the Telstra Upfront Data Plan Large, which comes with 400GB of data.

While most of the mobile broadband plans in our comparison engine are monthly offerings, Amaysim, Lebara, Telstra, Kogan, Optus and Aldi Mobile offer prepaid data plans. For comparison across monthly and prepaid types, below is a daily updating list of popular mobile broadband plans from our comparison engine.

Mobile broadband providers

The 20 mobile broadband plans we track in our comparison engine come from 11 different providers, which range from MVNOs like Amaysim and Lebara Mobile to network providers Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.

Here’s a list of the mobile broadband providers whose plans we track in our comparison engine:

What is mobile broadband?

spice up that pitch a bit, you’d sell it as WiFi that uses mobile data for internet connectivity, but that means you’d need a compatible WiFi dongle or portable modem to make it all work. A more straightforward use-case is an iPad, Android tablet or laptop that supports cellular connectivity, which is a fancy way of saying you can put a SIM card in it to use mobile data.

In basic terms, mobile broadband is wireless internet delivered via a mobile network. This means that as long as you have signal with the corresponding network, you can connect to the internet without having to use more traditional, stationary forms of broadband to get online. Basically, mobile broadband offers the versatility and freedom to take the internet with you.

How fast is mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband speeds are determined by the network you’re connected to and your signal strength, which is similar to how you’d gauge internet speeds on a smartphone. The difference here, though, is with a compatible WiFi dongle, there’s potential for speeds beyond what you could get on a smartphone, despite using the same technology. The difference is that a WiFi dongle is a device whose single focus is online data, whereas a smartphone handles data, talk, text and any number of other ‘smart’ functions.

The bigger difference with mobile broadband speeds is whether you’re connected to a 4G or 5G network. For the more pervasive 4G networks, you can expect to reach speeds of up to 100Mbps but more likely around the 50Mbps mark. With one of the Telstra 5G mobile broadband plans, though, speeds can potentially be many times faster than 100Mbps.

If you go over your mobile broadband data allocation, speeds will either be capped at 1.5Mbps for the duration of the month or you’ll be charged for additional data you use. If you’re wondering about the internet speed of the device you’re currently on, our speed test below works for mobile broadband, home wireless broadband and NBN connections.

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How fast can 5G get?

Anecdotally, I did a Telstra 5G speed test on my Google Pixel 5 recently, which boasted download speeds of 882Mbps and upload speeds of 89Mbps. In terms of reaching those speeds, it likely helps that the current lockdown in NSW means not a lot of people are out and congesting mobile towers, but those are the kind of blistering speeds that Telstra 5G plans can reach with the right conditions.

Mobile broadband modems

Graphic of two pocket WiFi devices from Telstra and Vodafone

You may know them as mobile broadband dongles or you may call them mobile broadband modems. Whatever your preferred term, you’re talking about the same device. And if you want to use a mobile broadband plan to share the internet with multiple devices, particularly devices that don’t have a SIM slot, you’ll need a mobile broadband dongle to get connected.

While we have a page dedicated to the best pocket WiFi and WiFi dongles available, but here’s a punchy breakdown. Bear in mind that sometimes it depends on the plan you’re signed up to and the network that provider uses.

For instance, if you’re with Telstra, you may opt for the Telstra 4GX USB modem, which is lightweight and allows for up to five users. Conversely, if you are on a more expensive Telstra mobile broadband plan with 5G access, you’ll want the Telstra 5G WiFi Pro, which allows for up to 30 connections and boasts nine hours of battery life.

Those signing up for an Optus mobile broadband plan can nab the ultra-affordable $39 Optus 4G USB modem for basic use or opt for the E5577 4G WiFi modem, which is lightweight and supports up to 16 simultaneous connections. You can get that same number of simultaneous connections if you opt for a Vodafone mobile broadband plan, where you can buy the Huawei 4G Pocket WiFi 3 modem for $99 upfront.

Mobile broadband vs home wireless broadband

Mobile broadband and home wireless broadband are identical in terms of how they get online—both use mobile data from the Telstra, Optus or Vodafone network—but there are some differences. First and foremost is that home wireless broadband is, as the name implies, designed for home use. That means you need a special modem-router to use a home wireless broadband plan, and you can’t take it outside with you.

Mobile broadband, on the other hand, is built to travel with you. Whether you use a mobile broadband plan for a compatible tablet or laptop, or stick the data SIM inside a WiFi dongle, you can use it wherever there’s phone signal from the phone network (including at home).

The other big difference between the two is data allocations. Home wireless broadband plans start with much more data (200GB) and stretch up to 500GB offerings or even capped unlimited-data plans. Mobile broadband users can get plans with as little as 1.5GB of data in either prepaid or monthly offerings with data caps that extend up to 400GB.

Mobile broadband vs NBN

While there’s a case to be made for home wireless broadband as a viable NBN alternative, especially with 5G plans from Optus and incoming from Telstra, mobile broadband is not intended as a replacement for home internet. Fixed-line and Fixed Wireless NBN plans all come with unlimited data, but there aren’t any unlimited-data mobile broadband plans.

The other big differences are speed, reliability and latency. While mobile broadband has the benefit of travelling with you, its performance is ultimately dependent on signal strength and congestion. NBN plans, and particularly ones in metro areas, tend to offer reliable connections with predictable download/upload speeds and consistently low latency. Latency for mobile broadband may get around 30ms when it’s great, but fixed-line NBN technologies offer latencies half that, which makes for more responsive internet-ing and is a better fit for video calls and online gaming.

For speed, while mobile broadband may technically offer speeds of up to 100Mbps, it’s more practical to expect top-end speeds around 50Mbps. That’s the equivalent of a good NBN 50 plan, but NBN 100 plans are available to majority of Australians at double the download speed, while Fibre-to-the-Premises and select Hybrid Fibre Coaxial homes can tap into NBN 250 and NBN 1000 plans. The only mobile broadband plans that currently come close to NBN 1000 speeds are Telstra 5G plans.

Nathan Lawrence
Written by
Nathan Lawrence

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