Mobile Broadband investigated
If you need to hook up multiple devices on the go then a mobile broadband unit offers the best solution. While some networks include tethering in their contracts, not all do – plus, using this feature tends to drain a phone’s battery life.
Here, we're going to check out the contract deals, hardware and the speeds on offer from the UK's main mobile broadband providers. O2, EE, Three and Vodafone – which will come out top? We find out.
From 1GB pre-loaded SIMs to huge data plans that may even cost more than your home broadband – we assess the lot.
Which is the cheapest mobile broadband provider on contract?
The clear winner for on-contract value is Three. The company has managed to chip away those few extra pounds at the higher end, and add in a gigabyte or two for its entry-level contracts.
One slight aberration here is O2's 6GB, £14.50-a-month deal, which slides in below all the other providers.
There’s a caveat, though. All of O2’s with-device mobile broadband deals are subject to a two-year contract, while the Three prices below are 12-month deals. With mobile broadband generally becoming more generous every quarter, do you really want to be tied to a two-year fixed deal?
EE (24 months)
£10 for 1GB
£15 for 3GB
£20 for 15GB
£30 for 25GB
Three (12 months)
£10 for 2GB
£15 for 5GB
£23 for 20GB
£45 for 40GB
Vodafone (12 months)
£10 for 1GB
£15 for 3GB
£20 for 10GB
O2 (24 months)
£9.50 for 2GB
£14.50 for 6GB
£20 for 10GB
£29 for 20GB
Related: Best smartphones
Note that some of the cheaper deals do entail some extra upfront costs, although it all depends on the hardware you’re after. Most networks offer several options, allowing you to hook up a greater number of devices at once and offering better battery life.
We’ll be taking a closer look at the specific hardware offered by the various networks below.
Which is the cheapest mobile broadband on pre-pay?
If you don’t want to commit to a long contract with any one mobile internet/broadband provider, you have two options.You can either sign up to a one-month contract, or there are deals available where you simply pay a lump sum to get a SIM loaded up with a certain amount of data.
It’s here things become a little complicated.
If you’re buying for very occasional use, you’re probably better off with the preloaded option. You see, with many of the one-month payment deals, your allowance will generally lapse at the end of the month.
While expensive, pre-loaded SIMs can last for up to a year, with no additional top-ups. Below, we’re going to look at the prices that include a Wi-Fi hotspot, which will allow you to connect multiple devices at the same time.
Pre-loaded SIMs (with Alcatel-made Osprey 2 mini, £20 with Osprey 2)
£49.99 for 6GB (90-day duration)
£99.99 for 24GB (1yr duration)
£15 for 2GB (lasts for 30 days)
£20 for 5GB(lasts for 30 days)
£25 for 15GB (lasts for 30 days)
£28 for 20GB (lasts for 30 days)
(take off £5 from the above if a recurring payment)
Pre-loaded SIM plans (with Huawei 4G device)
£59.99 1GB (lasts for 1 month)
£69.99 3GB (lasts for 3 months)
£119 for 12GB (lasts for 1 yr)
£5 for 250MB
£10 for 1GB
£15 for 2GB
£20 for 3GB
£25 for 6GB
Pre-loaded SIM plans (with Huawei R216 4G device)
£60 for 6GB (lasts for 30 days)
£3 for 300MB
£10 for 1GB
£15 for 2GB
£22 for 5GB
£25 for 8GB
Pre-loaded SIMs (with 4G multi-user Huawei device)
£45 for 1GB
£50 for 3GB
£55 for 5GB
£85 for 12GB
The clear winner is EE. While the prices on Three’s website appear as competitive as its monthly tariffs, the cost escalates rapidly as hardware is added.
EE appears to have done its best to minimise the impact of the Alcatel-made Osprey 2 mini mobile Wi-Fi unit, and as such offers easily the best deal. Its 25GB one-year pre-paid deal costs £20 less than Three’s 12GB option.
Watch out for Vodafone's deals, though. Its preloaded SIMs expire 30 days following activation, making them totally useless for those looking for a light-use SIM that they can use over the course of a few months or a year.
O2’s website, too, is unclear about the longevity of its preloaded SIM deals. Always ensure you look into how long your data will last before you buy.
Given the prices and the clarity of information on offer, we’d advise sticking with EE. It offers the best deals right now whether you’re after a data deal with a mobile Wi-Fi device or without. SIM-only, you can even get 6GB pre-paid data for around £18, or 25GB for £75. That’s a far better offer than the rest.
Which is the fastest mobile broadband service?
This is the hardest to assess. The speed of your mobile broadband will vary depending on where you are in the UK.
From Wimbledon, just outside central London, where we did most of our anecdotal testing, EE’s network was comfortably the fastest. It reached frankly ridiculous speeds – in excess of 100Mb on occasion.
Vodafone and O2 appeared to be the slowest, never quite reaching the highs (15-40Mb) of Three or EE. However, a move of 20m or so can significantly alter performance; it's not like a good home broadband connection.
Friend of TrustedReviews, Jmcomms, discovered a somewhat similar result, with EE ahead of the pack in London when it comes to 4G speeds. Similarly, the results of the other networks are best described as "all over the place" depending on where you are.
If you're not a resident in one of the UK's big cities, and you’re looking to invest in a contract or a generously preloaded SIM, it’s a good idea to talk to people who live in the area about their mobile data performance – as these SIMs and mobile data run off the same networks. Even parts of London suffer significant connectivity blackspots.
Which provider has the best hardware?
There's a wide array of dongles and MiFi units available from the UK’s networks.
We’re going to focus on the Wi-Fi-flinging ones at the top-end, however. These add most to your bill. Let’s look at size, the number of devices you can connect and battery life.
EE Osprey 2 mini: 73 x 73 x 13 mm
EE Osprey 2: 88 x 88 x 17.6 mm
Three 4G MiFi: 94 x 58 x 15mm
Vodafone R216 MiFi: 96 × 58 × 12.8mm
O2 4G MiFi: 96.8 x 58 x 12.8mm
Conclusion: The Osprey 2 is the largest in size; the others are all easily pocketable.
Max number of devices connected
EE Osprey 2 mini: 10
EE Osprey 2: 10
Three 4G MiFi: 10
Vodafone R216 MiFi: 5
O2 4G MiFi: 10
Conclusion: The Vodafone is the weak link
Battery life (up to):
EE Osprey 2 mini: 6 hours
EE Osprey 2: 20 hours
Three 4G MiFi: 6 hours
Vodafone R216 MiFi: 6 hours
O2 4G MiFi: 6 hours
Conclusion: Osprey 2 is king
All of these units are fairly similar at heart, bar those from EE. This is because the majority of the MiFi units on the market are made by Huawei. EE's units are made by Alcatel.
We should note that the stated battery-life figures are more generous than what you’ll achieve in actual use. On its website, Three even goes as far as to quote a far more realistic "4-hour" figure, which is what you’re likely to see from all the "6-hour" devices here if used properly.
The real standout product is the EE Osprey 2. It’s much larger, but will last for 15 hours of continuous data streaming thanks to its 5,000-plus mAh battery. It will even charge up your phone if you want to "donate" some of its juice. Which goes some way to excuse its size.
The weak link is the Vodafone R216, which will connect to only five devices at once; the others will interface with 10.
Any others to consider?
There are a few other providers that are also worthy of consideration. GiffGaff offers a very basic mobile broadband "gigabag" deal, which gets you either 1GB for £7.50 a month or 500MB for £5 a month.
This isn't a bad deal if you’re after a light-use package. No dongle/MiFi is included, however.
Then there’s Relish, a (currently) London-only mobile internet provider. It’s designed to replace your home broadband, and costs £20 a month for unlimited 4G data at up to 50Mbps. With no need for a landline, it’s a pretty sweet deal. Geographically, it's limited however.
Relish offers "proper" portable mobile broadband deals too. However, the prices aren’t quite so alluring, starting at £10 for 1GB and moving up to £20 for 5GB a month and £35 for 20GB a month.
All the above results are pretty conclusive then: if you're after a deal that includes a pre-paid SIM loaded up with data then EE is the way to go.
For a longer-term contract, be sure to check out Three and EE. Both offer the best deals on the market right now – particularly Three. EE and Three were also better when it comes to speed, with EE leading the pack.
However, if you live outside of a big city centre then it’s worth checking out the coverage on offer from each of the providers in your area. Check out the dedicated coverage checker pages for EE, Three, O2 and Vodafone.