What is mobile broadband and how does it work?

Broadband services have existed for some time now and we are all very familiar with what broadband is. When you think about broadband services, generally fixed network providers come to mind with a fibre cable or something similar. But nowadays, mobile operators also provide broadband services including fixed broadband as well as mobile broadband.

Mobile Broadband is a broadband service that uses a mobile network to establish a data connection instead of using a fixed network with a physical cable coming into your house. In mobile communications, the term Mobile Broadband, abbreviated as MBB, represents any mobile devices that provide high-speed internet services through a mobile network.

The concept of Mobile Broadband

Mobile broadband is basically a high-speed internet service that is enabled through a mobile network. Mobile technologies from 3G onwards can offer decent internet speeds. Enhancements like HSPA and EVDO added high-speed mobile internet capability in UMTS and CDMA2000 networks respectively. That was the time when USB dongles became popular as they allowed us to use mobile internet even for our computers. Now with 4G LTE networks, we can get super high-speed internet through any mobile device. Of course, the speeds depends on where you are and if you have decent connectivity. From a device viewpoint, we now have mobile Wi-Fi devices that can use mobile connectivity to create portable hotspots that we can carry with us wherever we go.

Since high-speed internet can be enabled by various mobile technologies, the term Mobile Broadband is more of an umbrella term and it encompasses multiple technologies. Let’s have a quick look at some of the key technologies that enable mobile broadband and the speeds that these technologies can offer.

Technologies that enable Mobile Broadband

HSPA and HSPA+

HSPA or High-Speed Packet Access is a technology that was introduced in the 3G UMTS networks that followed the GSM track. The original UMTS networks (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) could already offer decent data speeds but HSPA provided a big boost. HSPA is a collective term which is a combination of HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) and HSUPA (High-Speed Uplink Packet Access). The downlink helps with the downloads and the uplink helps with the uploads. HSPA can enable peak download speeds of up to 14.4 Mbps and peak upload speeds of up to 5.76 Mbps

After the introduction of HSPA, there were further enhancements that led to Evolved High-Speed Packet Access or HSPA+. HSPA+ is a technology upgrade to HSPA which increases the peak download speeds to up to 42 Mbps and upload speeds to up to 11.5 Mbps.

EVDO

EVDO is a technology that was introduced in the CDMA based 3G networks called CDMA2000. CDMA2000 was the 3G path for cdmaOne networks, just like UMTS was the 3G path for the GSM networks. EVDO stands for EVolution Data Optimized and it can provide peak download speeds of up to 14.7 Mbps and peak upload speeds of up to 5.4 Mbps. The equivalent of EVDO in the UMTS based 3G networks is HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access). 

LTE

LTE is the technology behind the fourth generation (4G) of mobile networks and stands for Long Term Evolution. LTE networks can offer peak speeds of up to 300 Mbps in the downlink for downloads and 75 Mbps in the uplink for uploads. The later versions of LTE; LTE Advanced and LTE Pro can offer even higher speeds.

In case you are wondering why you don’t often (or ever) get these super-high speeds when using LTE, let us give you a bit of clarification. The speeds above are the peak data speeds and not something you generally get. In real-life (outside the test labs), your mobile network is serving many people which means that the available bandwidth is distributed among multiple users. As a result, the speed that each user gets is considerably lower than the maximum speed. The network coverage (i.e. how far you are from the 4G LTE base station) also determines the quality of service that you get.

eMBB through 5G

eMBB stands for Enhanced Mobile Broadband and it is the mobile broadband service enabled by 5G NR (New Radio) networks. Even though LTE can already offer super-high speeds for an average user, 5G will take things to a whole new level. 5G is very different from earlier mobile technologies with lots of use cases where mobile broadband is one of the simplest ones. Under ideal network conditions, 5G can offer data speeds over 10 Gbps with a latency of as low as 1 millisecond. The average speeds that the users get can be considerably lower for the reasons mentioned above.

How can you get mobile broadband?

If you want to start using mobile broadband, you basically need two things; a mobile device and a mobile connection. Mobile technologies are backwards compatible which means that the devices for later generations (e.g. 4G) can also work with earlier generations (e.g. 3G, 2G etc.). So you are safer when you buy mobile devices for the later generations.

Device

It is quite easy nowadays to get mobile devices that can create a hotspot. If you get enough data with your current smartphone plan, you can simply use ‘tethering’ to create a portable hotspot. You may need to check with your mobile operator in case you have any limitations on how much data you can use when tethering. You can use the same approach if you have a SIM-enabled tablet. Alternatively, you can buy a purpose-built device like a portable Mi-Fi router that comes with a rechargeable battery. That option might be most suitable if you travel a lot or if you are one of those people who spend a lot of time in the car.

Connectivity

If you are using a MiFi router or a tablet, you will need a data-only SIM from your mobile operator for regions where technologies like HSPA, HSPA+ and LTE are employed. If you are someone looking to use the EVDO technology though, it is best to get both the device and the connection from your operator because EVDO devices don’t require an external SIM.

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