Wireless Broadband Guide

What are the different types of wireless broadband you can get, and why would you want them? Let's take a look

We all use home Wi-Fi, but this isn't the only type of wireless broadband that you can get. There are several other different systems that suit users in a range of situations. In this guide we take a look at 4G and 5G, fixed wireless and public Wi-Fi, and find out what they can do for you.

Get started with wireless broadband

While fibre is the main type of wireless broadband you can get these days, it isn't the only type. Read on to find out about how to get home broadband through 4G and 5G networks, a smart solution for users in rural communities, and the best ways to access the internet in public.

What is 4G and 5G home broadband?

4G and 5G home broadband is a form of internet connection that runs on the same mobile networks you have on your phone, rather than the fibre cable network.

As far as the user is concerned, this type of broadband works in the same way as any other type of wireless home broadband. You still get a router that you set up somewhere in your house, and you connect all your devices to it to get online. The only difference is that you don't need to plug the router into your phone line, because the signal comes from the 4G or 5G mobile network instead.

What this means is that availability, speed and performance are determined by how close you are to the nearest cell towers rather than your nearest street cabinet, which is the case with most fibre broadband services.

Depending on the provider, you can expect 4G broadband speeds to average around 25 to 35Mb, which is roughly in line with an entry level fibre service. More than 95% of the UK population can access the 4G network from at least one provider, although home broadband services are not yet available everywhere.

The 5G network is still quite new, and so coverage is very patchy. Even in the well over 100 towns and cities where it has been launched, it still isn't available in every area of those towns and cities. If you can get it, you can expect download speeds of over 150Mb - faster than most fibre broadband plans. The speeds will increase in future, too. 5G is likely to play a big part in the plans to bring gigabit-capable broadband to the whole of the UK.

The pros and cons of 4G or 5G home broadband

The main benefit to 4G and 5G broadband is convenience. It's available in a lot of rural areas where the fibre infrastructure may be lacking. It also doesn't require any setup or installation - you can get it up and running the day you sign up if you need to - and you don't need a landline either.

And because it isn't tethered to your phone line, or the local physical infrastructure, it's a whole lot easier to take with you if you move house. As long as you get good coverage where you are, you're set.

The main downside is that it can often be more expensive than a comparable fibre broadband deal, so it's important that you shop around to find the best deal. 4G is also slower than many fibre options, so it might be right for more demanding households. 5G doesn't have the same problem, although it isn't available to most people right now.

For more detail on 4G and 5G home broadband check out our in-depth guide.

What is fixed wireless broadband?

Fixed wireless broadband (FWB) brings fast internet access to rural areas that lack the necessary infrastructure for other broadband services.

FWB is offered by smaller, often local providers, and coverage is quite patchy. There are numerous complications that affect the rollout and access to the services.

To provide fixed wireless broadband, the provider needs to install masts in the town or village, which demands a certain level of interest from local residents. Each individual household also needs to have a receiver installed on their property, which adds to the price. Furthermore, there needs to be line of sight access between the receiver and mast. Even properties in areas of good coverage are not guaranteed a connection for precisely this reason.

The speeds it can deliver vary wildly. Some services are able to rival the speeds of standard broadband, but in the most remote areas they can be considerably slower. We would usually only recommend fixed wireless broadband where there are no other options.

There are many providers of fixed wireless broadband. These include Quickline, which covers parts of Wales, Scotland and Northern England, and WiSpire, which has installed masts on church spires to bring internet access to some Norfolk villages.

How you can use public Wi-Fi hotspots (and where to find them)

Wi-Fi isn’t limited to the home. An increasing number of shops and businesses are offering Wi-Fi access to their customers, and some of the UK’s largest broadband providers have tens of thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots their subscribers can use for free.

BT Wi-Fi is the largest network with over five million hotspots. It is free to BT Broadband and BT Mobile users, and bundled on some EE pay monthly deals. Anyone else can access it through pay as you go or pre-pay tariffs.

BT Wi-Fi is primarily provided by utilising a secure segment of home users' broadband connections, allowing their network to range into millions of residential locations. It’s also available in premium business locations including like John Lewis and Hilton Hotels. Click here to find more hotspots in your region.

Sky Wi-Fi, also known as The Cloud, is free to Sky Broadband customers. Pricing for non-customers is set on a venue by venue basis, and is often free if the venue chooses to pick up the tab. The Cloud hotspots can be found at Wetherspoons pubs and KFC restaurants, among many other locations. Use the Sky Wi-Fi hotspot map to find nearby locations.

O2 Wi-Fi is free for everyone - just register and sign in. Hotspots are found in places such as McDonalds, Costa Coffee and Argos. O2 customers get the O2 Wi-Fi Extra app that automatically signs you in to hotspots without the need to register every time.

Virgin Media also runs its own smaller Wi-Fi network. It's most significant for bringing Wi-Fi to 150 London Underground stations, which customers of EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three can also access for free.

Is public Wi-Fi secure?

Open public Wi-Fi hotspots are a lot less secure than your home Wi-Fi, because they don't use encryption.

In order to keep the hotspots open and accessible they are not password-protected, so anyone can connect to the network. This means the data you send and receive is unencrypted, leaving it open to being intercepted and read by anyone connected to the same hotspot.

Most websites now use their own encrypted connections which make your browsing safe - look for a padlock icon in your browser, or https:// in the address bar. However, you shouldn't take this as a sign of complete safety if you're using an open Wi-Fi connection.

For this reason you should only use public Wi-Fi for general web use, not for things like banking or shopping.

Wi-Fi in hotels, restaurants and shops is more likely to be secured, and therefore safer to use. In short, if you need a password to connect to the network then it has some level of security in place. If you can connect without one, then there’s no protection. A form asking for your email address before you can connect is not a guarantee of security.

If using the hotspot in your local coffee shop is part of your daily routine there are steps you can take to increase your security levels. A VPN (virtual private network) client is an app that encrypts all of the data traffic that passes between your computer and the internet. Hotspot Shield is a good example of a VPN client, and has free versions for Windows and Mac computers, plus iOS and Android mobile devices.

How to create your own portable hotspot

If you need to access the internet on your laptop but there’s no Wi-Fi hotspot nearby, you can create your own portable hotspot with your smartphone or mobile broadband device. This is called tethering.

Using the Personal Hotspot feature on an iPhone and the Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot feature on Android, you can turn your phone into a wireless router. You connect your laptop to it in the same way as you would connect to any other hotspot, and access the internet via your phone’s data connection.

Not all mobile networks allow tethering. The larger ones generally do, but not on all contract types and often with usage limits.

If you need to use mobile Wi-Fi heavily, then look for mobile broadband deals with a portable hotspot device. This is a small wireless router with integrated SIM card - your internet access comes via a mobile network rather than home broadband. Devices come in different form factors from easily pocketable compact models to those designed to work in your car. Many support the latest network standards including double speed 4G from EE, as well as 5G if you're in a coverage area.

Remember, though, that mobile data is a lot more expensive and the allowances are smaller. Unless you have no other option these should be for occasional or business use when out of the home, not as a replacement for a proper broadband service.