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Mobile broadband plans

If you're on the go or can't get a good fixed-line internet connection, a mobile broadband plan could be your best option.

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While fixed-line broadband and data from our mobile phones serve us well in most cases, there are times when you may need a mobile broadband option.

It uses the same wireless networks that 3G and 4G mobile telephone networks use, either through a dedicated data SIM card or wireless modem.

This has the distinct advantage against fixed-line services in that is is truly mobile – you can connect to a mobile broadband network for data access on the go.

Read on to find out more about mobile broadband, who it’s suitable for, and the types of plans available.

Types of mobile broadband

There are three forms of mobile broadband plans currently available in New Zealand that give you access to Internet on the go:

Data SIM

A data SIM is similar to the SIM that you use for your mobile phone, but only comes loaded with data rather than calling capability. You put your SIM into your tablet to have access to 3G or 4G, depending on where you are in the country. You can purchase a data SIM from Spark, with an open-term plan with 10, 20 or 40 gigabytes per month.

Mobile Wi-Fi

Mobile Wi-Fi is a pocket-sized device that acts in a similar way to a modem, but needs a SIM card to connect to the network. It is operated by battery power and can connect up to 14 Wi-Fi ready devices. Vodafone sells the Alcatel LINK Zone for an upfront cost and includes a prepay SIM which you can top up as needed. The device can be used anywhere in the world, so is handy for travellers.

Wireless router

A wireless router can be used anywhere there is a 3G or 4G LTE broadband signal. No SIM card, cables or phone line is required to get connected. Netspeed is one provider that offers this mobile broadband solution, for people that need to get connected from their vehicle, holiday home or caravan. It has a cigarette lighter adaptor so the router can be plugged into your vehicle, and special antennas can be purchased to boost the router’s reception.

How fast is mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband speed is highly relative because it’s a shared spectrum, meaning it’s dependent upon multiple factors: how much broadband other users in the same mobile radius are taking up, what your device’s technology capabilities are and the network itself.

As an example, Vodafone’s 4G network is capable of typical download speeds up to 100Mbps and in some 4G areas 300Mbps.

5G is now being rolled out in parts of New Zealand, so you can expect to see even faster speeds once this becomes available for mobile broadband.

Where is mobile broadband available?

Mobile broadband availability can vary depending on the provider, but with 4G now widely available, you should be able to get coverage anywhere you can get a 4G signal on your phone. In some areas, 3G might be the only option.

It’s important to remember that while mobile broadband is mobile, it’s subject to significantly more variance than any fixed-line product. This includes network congestion due to user overload or more permanent issues such as buildings or natural features inhibiting radio transmissions.

So while carrier maps give a good broad general overview of availability, performance and speed can vary widely.

Mobile broadband coverage maps

How can I compare mobile broadband plans?

Speed

Mobile broadband typically operates on the 4G network, so depending on where you are in New Zealand, you are likely to experience speeds of up to 100Mbps. Speeds can differ though due to factors such as network congestion and distance from the cell tower. Where 4G is not available, you’ll be connected via 3G. If you are travelling to a remote part of the country, you can use the coverage maps to find out which network is available.

Data allowance

Depending on the type of mobile broadband you choose, you may also have to choose a monthly data allowance upfront. There’s no such thing as an “unlimited” mobile broadband plan at this stage in New Zealand and it’s unlikely that we’ll see such plans emerge in the near future. Spark offers 10, 20 or 40GB per month, but with Vodafone you can prepay for the amount of data that you need.

With Netspeed, you can choose a plan that has between 80GB and 210GB. However, your data allowance is split between peak and off-peak times. You can also purchase excess data if you happen to reach your limit during the month for $2 per gigabyte.

If you’re not sure how much data you need, use our data usage calculator to get an idea of the type of allowance you should aim for.

Cost

Mobile data is more expensive than comparable fixed-line services, so expect to pay more in ongoing costs. You will also need to factor in any additional charges.

With Spark’s data SIM cards, there are no upfront costs, you simply order the SIM and choose the appropriate plan. For Vodafone and Netspeed mobile broadband, you will need to pay for the device or router when you sign up.

What’s the downside?

Though mobile broadband connections can outperform fixed-line ADSL, don’t expect to have the same service that a fast and reliable fibre connection can bring. Speeds are inherently fickle with changes in weather, physical obstructions and other environmental factors often causing wild fluctuation speeds. In cases where you’re trying to stream a video or Skype someone, this can lead to disruptions that are less frequent when using a fixed connection.

Data is a concern for mobile broadband plans as well. Where most fixed-line plans now offer unlimited monthly data options, there is currently no equivalent unlimited mobile broadband plan available in New Zealand. The data caps that are available top out at around 210GB with a wireless router or 40GB for a data SIM, which can be all too easy to chew through if you’re streaming Netflix for hours every day.

If you do decide to spring for the biggest data cap on offer, prepare to lay down a decent chunk of change for it because mobile data is expensive compared to home broadband plans.

Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Portable. No wires, no complicated equipment and the freedom to take it with you wherever you go.
  • Easily shared. A wireless router or Mobile Wi-Fi device allows those around you to share Internet access quickly and easily.
  • Fast. With good reception, mobile broadband can deliver higher speeds than some fixed-line connections.

Cons

  • Unstable. Despite the ability to hit high Internet speeds, mobile broadband is susceptible to a range of environmental factors that can lead to frequent interruptions and performance drops.
  • Data-constrained. Plans rarely offer data caps that you can get with fixed-line broadband, and typically offer much, much less.
  • Expensive. The per-GB rate leaves a lot to be desired especially compared to fixed-line pricing.

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