Pay As You Go Dongles | Mobile Broadband

Sometimes, I am out of the house all of the time except when I am sleeping. That means that for a wide range of devices I want my data connection to be cheap and fast; something that my mobile provider has not always offered. Over the last few years, I have found Pay As You Go dongles offering mobile broadband for my laptop and later my tablet.

Since first writing this I now tether using a BlackBerry Z10 and using my Vodafone contract. Many people still find my route to getting cheap mobile broadband effective though.

It is also useful if you are moving home and know you will be spending a week or so without a reliable broadband connection.


When I used to have a Nokia E65 I would connect my laptop to it all the time. It was a simple USB to Handset cable and I would be using my phone happily as a modem. Vodafone never mentioned that it would be a problem.

I got spooked though when I upgraded to a Nokia E71 device and all of a sudden I started to use more data and the mobile company asked me outright if I was tethering my phone to a computer. I denied all knowledge back then, but now they practically throw the idea at you to sell more data!

Most companies will offer tethering either included on their new plans or as a paid on extra, but most virtual operators though such as Giff Gaff and Virgin Mobile prohibit it. If you have to pay, or your phone does not have the capability then consider a pay as you go dongle.

What is a Mobile Broadband Dongle?

Well basically you can think of your mobile dongle as a mobile phone, but without the calls or texts.

There are two ways that your device connects to your computer, laptop or tablet; using a built in USB connection or using wireless. If you have a USB-based dongle then it will slot into a full sized USB2 port and then use the port to provide it’s  power as well as the data connection itself; a wireless adapter works using your laptop or computer’s 802.11 wireless (or Wi-Fi) connection. There should essentially be two questions you need to ask:

  • Does everything that you will want to connect to the dongle have full sized USB2 ports – many tablets do not
  • Does everything that you will want to connect have wireless – wireless means less wires!

Most consumer Internet dongles operate around the speeds you would expect from a reasonable broadband connection but can be slower than needed for most Internet gaming, but ideal for surfing, e-mails and other tasks. As 4G mobile dongles are now widely available you can pay a little more and get much faster speeds.

Personally, I connect my laptop, tablet and occasionally mobile phone on the move so at the time I opted for a wireless based adapter.

How Easy Is It To Use?

The MiFi E5220 Mobile Dongle available on 3

The MiFi E5220 Mobile Dongle available on 3

The beauty of the various dongles that are used for Mobile Broadband is that they are really easy to use. If you are using a plug in USB dongle then almost always the software needed to run the mobile dongle device will be stored within the technology of the dongle and it will prompt you to install it on the first use with each device. I have found that Microsoft Windows generally needs the drivers in order to run, but Android tablets will do everything in the background automatically and it will just need a minute or so to connect.

If you are opting for a wireless based device such as the MiFi E5220 (pictured left) then it is even easier. The connection to it is the same principle as connecting your desktop or laptop to your wireless router at home; you use the enclosed device name and password to connect your device to the dongle and away you go.

Remember though that both types of device rely on the mobile phone network to work well. If you have a wireless MiFi style device that is find because you can leave it near the window but if you have a USB device you might have to sacrifice location for a good connection indoors!

What is Mobile Broadband?

Being called mobile broadband, mobile Internet, 3G Internet and other names; the use of data is exactly the same as you would on your mobile phone and beyond that the same as you use your Internet connection at home. Your computer or tablet sends out small packets of data to request a particular web page or download and the Internet locates the server that has that piece of data and sends it back to you.

Okay so that is a very simplistic outlook on how the Internet works, but it is not important to why we want to look at mobile dongles.

Pay As You Go vs Contract

Mobile Internet is changing almost quicker than mobile phones. There are a few things to remember though

  • If you are tied to a Contract – that can be for up to 24 months complete with any price hikes imposed
  • If you are on a Pay As You Go dongle – if the prices are suddenly hiked then you can switch quite easily

The thing is that if you shop around enough, pay as you go Internet can be as cheap as paying each month through a contract, with none of the commitments. There is an obvious difference between the two though. If you go onto a fixed term contract then the dongle can usually be had for free whereas if you go PAYG then you will have to pay up from for your USB or wireless dongle. We can show you how to save money on that though as well.

Also remember that technology is always getting better. Not only are there now 4G services slowly coming on-line; but 5G is in development as we speak in institutions like the University of Surrey. In 12 months time the 3G mobile Internet service will be yesterdays thing but you could still be tied into a contract when everyone around you is using the latest technology and there is no guarantee that your mobile Internet provider will let you simply upgrade mid-commitment!

and finally remember that you might have made lifestyle changes yourself in a few months time. Promotions, redundancies, new jobs all mean that you might not have a use for data usage on the commute to work or in the office any more, but with a contract you will still have to pay it!

My Choice Mobile Broadband Provider

All of the UK’s major mobile  service providers offer some sort of mobile Internet service for customers and arguably the rates are not as expensive as they were a few years ago. Because 4G is still in it’s infancy we will concentrate only on the 3G offers and USB dongles at the moment. Even when we concentrate on 3G though, as you will be able to see from my comparison, you can do it far cheaper than you realise (and the networks like).

Let’s take a look at an example such as Three Mobile Broadband. If you were to take one of their mobile broadband contracts then for a 24 month commitment you can get a device free of change and for the purposes of this comparison I am using their Huawei MiFi E5220 plans because this is the device I use when I am out and about. We will also make an assumption that based on what I use; an occasional user to surf the Internet on the daily commute will use just under 1GB a month.

1GB Contract Tariff Free Device & 1GB Data Allowance Every Month 24 Month Minimum Commitment £10.87 a month Total Cost: £260.88
1GB Pre-Pay Tariff £49.99 Device & 1st Month GB Data No Commitment £10.49 a month 24 Month Total: £291.26
How I do it! No Commitment 25 Month Total: Approx £240

As you can see, I have used Amazon to make Pay As You Go dongles nearly £50 cheaper than the Three Mobile Broadband official website and the dongle itself is great, it runs at a maximum of 21Mbps which in Broadband terms is about 2.6MB. So okay it is not the breakneck speeds that you expect from a cable broadband connection like Virgin Media or BT Infinity but for web surfing it is enough to keep you going. There are a few good things to remember about what I have done with the way I manage my 3 Mobile Broadband  service:

  • Most dongles like the MiFi allow you to interchange sim cards, which is why I buy a new SIM each time I want to top up my data allowance; making it much cheaper than direct through 3 (go figure!)
  • Prices are more fluid on Amazon than they are direct through 3 and have increased over the last 12 months by about 33%
  • Make sure if you go via Amazon you use a reputable seller – or Amazon itself!

What sold me the idea of buying the 3GB SIMs each time is that they are valid for 90 days. Sometimes I use less than 1GB in a month sometimes it is more and that would mean me losing allowance on a contract for some months and then having to pay extra on others. Since I started doing this I admittedly use about 1.3 to 1.5GB a month as well, so all that means is that I might have to buy a new SIM slightly earlier; it still won’t activate though until you use it for the first time.

The Alternatives

If you already have a phone contract that includes a sizeable amount of data and allows tethering then that might be an alternative for you. Although my mobile phone provider allows tethering I find that my laptop use at times can be heavy enough to rapidly deplete the battery. Most newer mobile phone contracts in the UK either have it included or can do so at a small cost, dependent on your handset being able to support it.

Personally I would not be without my wireless pay as you go dongle. It keeps me working on the Internet when I need it the most. You can use my tactics to get cheaper mobile Internet as well. Just click on the links in the table above and buy your 3 Mobile Internet devices and SIMs now!

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