4G is no longer a fantasy. More and more mobile devices are capable of tapping ridiculously quick LTE Internet, for downloads, streaming and anything else requiring the need for speed.
But what about desktops, laptops and other non-mobile devices that traditionally depend on a fixed Internet connection? Well, the 4G revolution can help too.
We’ve already looked at ways you can ditch your landline at home but still keep your Internet connection, and one of these ways is to sign-up to a mobile broadband plan. But can a Huawei MiFi dongle ever really replace that generic, white Netgear router that sits underneath your living room table?
We take a look.
4G: Finding its feet
Using the UK as an example, 4G is still very much finding its feet and prices do vary wildly depending on a range of factors – are you looking for a SIM-only deal or the latest smartphone too? Do you need calls and texts? Or are you looking for a 30-day, 12-month or 24-month deal?
Specific to mobile broadband – that is, broadband designed to be accessed via a mobile router-type device – things are a little more clear. You can generally buy your own dongle for anywhere between £50 and £100 or, if you prefer, it can be bundled in with your contract.
For example, EE – the UK’s first and most widespread network operator – offers a 24-month deal with a free Alcatel Y800 dongle for £25.99 per month. That seems reasonable on the surface, given that you could easily be paying more than that for a fixed-line broadband connection, but the issue here is that it’s limited to 8GB a month (though there are lower allowances for less money). If the long-term commitment is too punchy, then you can switch to a 30-day rolling contract and pay a £49.99 up-front cost.
The other networks don’t really offer any packages specifically for mobile broadband, though this will likely change.
As we’ve seen in our previous tests, 4G is capable of delivering speeds of up to 40Mbps. But with factors such as network load and reception coming into play, a more realistic figure for the time-being is around the 15-20Mbps mark.
Indeed, throughout the course of my working day and weekend, this is the average speed I get from South West London, with around 17Mbps (download) and 0.5Mbps (upload) the standard.
You’ll no doubt agree, this is absolutely fine for most of your Web-browsing needs, but if you’re into online gaming or other bandwidth-intensive activities this will be a massive non-starter for you.
Compared to the average ADSL Internet speed, more often than not the download speeds are actually a little better on 4G, as you can see in this comparative screenshot from BT’s fixed-line broadband.
However, if you’re on a fibre-optic broadband connection, you can get anything up to 100Mbps. If you’re sufficiently bothered about the difference between 20Mbps and 100Mbps, then you likely wouldn’t want the restrictions currently imposed by 4G mobile broadband anyway, so this is really a moot point.
In terms of costs, if you happen to live in a Virgin Cable area, you can secure unlimited super-fast 100Mbps broadband for £35/month (£30/month for first 3 months), which requires no phone line and just a 12-month commitment. Compared to the restrictive 8GB allowance of EE’s 4G mobile broadband, which runs at a fraction of the speed and isn’t all that much less expensive, it’s clear that 4G has a long way to go before it can genuinely pose a threat to home broadband.
It’s worth stressing here that this isn’t a debate on whether 4G will flourish or not – it most certainly will eventually. And many people will sign-up to a mobile broadband deal in addition to their home set-up, for using when they’re away from home.
But in terms of fully replacing home broadband, even with the current 4G obstacles there will be some people out there who wish to side-step long contracts, landlines and TV subscriptions and jump on board the 4G train. Granted, they would only have around 2GB data allowance a week to play with, but if they only ever really shop online, send emails, check Facebook and so on, well, they should get by absolutely fine. The added bonus with 4G over 3G mobile broadband is they can also enjoy buffer-free YouTube or iPlayer videos on those occasions where they do wish to stream something to their laptop.
However, until 4G is offered on completely unlimited plans, home broadband will very much remain a firm fixture in homes around the land.
But wait – Three will be offering unlimited 4G data plans when it finally launches in a few cities later this year, however this won’t apply to mobile broadband – just smartphones and tablets.
There is one giant elephant in the room with regards to mobile broadband replacing your fixed line connection. Even if we do get to the stage where 4G is affordable, ubiquitous and unlimited, replacing a home broadband connection with a dongle won’t be practical in many instances – we’re talking shared households here.
Can you imagine how annoying it would be to get home from work with a view towards catching up with the latest season of Breaking Bad on Netflix, only to discover your flatmate/sister/significant other has disappeared to the pub with the device?
This problem could be circumvented if users procured their own individual units which, when added together and priced against the cost of a single fixed-line cable connection, probably won’t make sound financial sense for many people.
For now, 4G is still an emerging technology in most countries, and while it’s certainly fast enough, it’s still not nearly ubiquitous enough or restriction-free to be a viable alternative for most would-be cord-cutters. The average UK broadband user cuts through around 25GB of data a month at home, so 4G has a long way to go yet.
But it could be a different story two years from now, if ‘unlimited’ becomes a key part of every 4G mobile broadband plan, and prices come down just a little.