What Is Mobile Broadband?

Are you ready for 5G speeds?

Man using smartphone in busy coffee shop.
Hero Images/Getty Images

Mobile broadband, also called a wireless wide area network, is a general term used to describe high-speed internet access from mobile providers for portable devices.

If you have a data plan on your cell phone and have the capability to email or visit websites over your cellular provider's network, that's mobile broadband. Mobile broadband services also provide wireless internet access on your laptop or tablet using built-in mobile broadband network cards or other portable network devices, such as USB modems or mobile hotspots.

This on-the-go fast internet service is most commonly provided by the major cellular networks — Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile.

Types of Mobile Broadband

There are many acronyms mentioned in regards to mobile broadband: GPRS, 3G, HSDPA, LTE, WiMAX, EV-DO, and others. These are all different standards for mobile broadband technology. Just as wireless networking evolved from 802.11b to 802.11n with faster speeds and other improved performance features, mobile broadband performance continues to evolve, and with so many players in this growing field, the technology is even branching off.

The 4G (fourth generation) mobile broadband class, which includes WiMax and LTE standards, superseded the older 3G standard in most places. And 5G broadband is starting to appear, under different brand names, in major U.S. markets.

Benefits and Features of Mobile Broadband

3G is fast enough for streaming low-resolution online videos, downloading music, viewing Web photo albums, and video conferencing. If you've ever experienced being bumped from 3G to the lower GPRS data rate, you appreciate your 3G service when you get it back.

4G promises up to 10 times the speed of 3G, which is currently described by the cellular companies as having typical download speeds of 700 Kbps to 1.7 Mbps and upload speeds of 500 Kbps to 1.2 Mbps. This isn't as fast as fixed broadband from cable modems or FiOS, but about as fast as DSL. Speeds vary due to conditions such as signal strength.

The Coming 5G Standard

The market for 5G products is chaotic. Although some carriers made noise throughout 2018 about offering 5G service, the technical standard for 5G won't be officially endorsed until April 2019, with international standardization following in 2020.

If your carrier offers 5G service before the middle of 2019, you're right to be skeptical. There's a battle on to be the first to market, even if what's being marketed precedes the formal definition of the 5G standard.

As planned, 5G networks will feature faster throughput, slower latency, and better energy savings. Some sources, including Qualcomm, suggest that median speeds approaching 500 Mbps will be likely, which is much faster than 4G networks. Part of this change comes with augmentations to the digital spectrum that 5G devices will be allowed to access.

Common Use Cases for Mobile Broadband

The use of mobile broadband services has evolved since the early days of the smartphone revolution. It wasn't unusual for carriers to charge to tether devices like laptops, using Wi-Fi, to the smartphone for on-the-go internet.

Nowadays, smartphones are more computer-like in their capability and Wi-Fi is broadly easy to find. In addition, many tablets ship with LTE-enabled chipsets to access the cellular network instead of with a Wi-Fi connection.

The 4G experience has proven so successful that some people forego home internet connections altogether in favor of using mobile broadband for their portable devices.