Mobile broadband vs wireless broadband: what’s the difference?


If you’re one of the surprisingly large number of people in Australia that can’t access a fixed broadband service, you know how frustrating that can be. You could be in an area with no ADSL ports at the local phone exchange. That leaves you hanging high and dry with no alternative source of a wired broadband connection until the NBN arrives. You could be in a building where the internal phone wiring can’t support any decent level of wired broadband. Or maybe you’re kilometres away from the nearest node or exchange with ancient, noisy copper wiring between you and your ISP. Thus crippling your broadband service to the point where it’s too slow to do anything productive. Whatever the case, there are a few alternatives to traditional broadband worth looking into. We’re here to give you the scoop.

The NBN rollout is nearly complete and it’s expected to solve connectivity problems for many consumers, at least in part. But what can you do if you haven’t got NBN access yet, or can’t get it? Well, there are high quality wireless broadband services available in Australia. And not all of them run on the mobile phone network, either.

What’s the difference?

Some providers use the terms “mobile broadband” and “wireless broadband” interchangeably. Even though what they’re selling as “wireless broadband” is actually a stand-alone modem running on the 4G or 5G mobile phone networks. While the use of the term “wireless” isn’t actually deceptive – it is, after all, wireless – there’s an implication that it’s somehow different to the sort of mobile broadband coverage you’d get by, for example, tethering your 4G phone to your desktop or laptop computer. It’s not, of course – but it’s a lot less hassle than hooking up your phone whenever you want to get online. What you get with these plans is a data-only SIM plan bundled with a 4G or 5G Wi-Fi modem. The modem handles the connection to the network the exact same way a mobile phone does. The performance is similar to what you’d get with mobile broadband plans on your laptop or tablet.

These devices do, however, often offer far more visible detail about your connection speed and quality. They also act as a de facto Wi-Fi router to allow everything Wi-Fi in your home to easily connect to them. But they’re prone to the same issues as any mobile phone running on a specific mobile network when it comes to coverage. Think blackspots, peak hour slowdowns, and all. One major company even recommends that you “position your modem close to a window to maximise signal strength”! That’s why the mobile network you choose to connect to is crucially important.

True wireless broadband, meanwhile, is more often referred to as “fixed wireless”. This is a technology which the NBN is using in areas where coverage with any kind of cable is prohibitive. It’s not, however, anything to do with satellites. While the NBN does offer satellite broadband to remote areas, that’s not something anyone would want except as a last resort. Its latency – the time between when you send a request and get a response back – is incredibly slow, making it near-useless for many modern broadband tasks, especially online gaming.

Mobile Broadband Plans

Plan
Inclusions
Price
Mobile Broadband - 5GB
  • No excess data charges
  • Mobile Broadband - 5GB
  • No Lock-in Contract
  • 4G Speeds Vary
  • 5GB Data
  • Mobile Broadband
  • 4G network access
  • Data-free sports streaming
  • $15/mth
$15/mth
Min Cost - $15

Extra Small Mobile Broadband
  • Extra Small Mobile Broadband
  • 12 Month Contract
  • 4G Speeds Vary
  • 7GB Data
  • Mobile Broadband
  • BYO Handset
  • Great for light data users
  • $15/mth
$15/mth
Min Cost - $180 over 12 months $0.0021 Cost of 1MB of Broadband Data

Moose 1.5GB Data SIM
  • Moose 1.5GB Data SIM
  • No Lock-in Contract
  • 1.5GB Data
  • Sim Only Plan
  • Data Only, no calls or texts
  • No exit or penalty fees
  • $12/mth
$12/mth
Min Cost - $12 over 1 month

Last audited 15 October 2020

A fixed wireless service instead operates kind of like the original mobile networks in Australia did – using very powerful centralised antennas to handle the transmit and receive of data. These days, though, this is done with microwaves – the same tech that TV news vans use to beam pictures back to base for transmission. The name given to this tech is sometimes used in marketing – WiMAX, where the “M” stands for “microwave”.

There’s one problem with WiMAX – it’s expensive to install at the user’s end, as special microwave receiving hardware is needed. ISPs that offer this service will usually ask you to both sign on to a contract and pay a fairly large amount to subsidise the installation. The end result on a well-run network, though, can be broadband that’s potentially faster than anything the wired NBN can deliver. To test your existing provider try our speed test.

If you want to look towards the future of mobile broadband, Telstra has started rolling out 5G around Australia, with over 200 towers already converted at the start of 2019, and nearly 50 cities and towns covered by 5G at the star of 2020. Once the network is complete – and with a suitable handset or modem – 5G will allow speeds that eclipse even the fastest NBN connection.

What plans are available?

If you’re after low-cost wireless broadband plans, you’re going to want to look at the 4G options available. Telstra offers full access to their super-fast 4G network via their regular phone plans, with big data allowances now including 30GB monthly data with unlimited talk and text for only $50/month, or a massive 60GB for $60. You get free access to the 5G network until the end of June 2020, too – brilliant if you have a 5G-capable phone.

By comparison, Southern Phone keeps things incredibly affordable with its Green 25 Mobile Broadband plan – which gives you a healthy 18Gb per month on the Optus 4G network for only $22. If you need more data than that, Southern Phone’s $30 or $45 plans offer 35GB and 80GB data respectively.

If you’re looking for a much more flexible, dedicated wireless broadband solution, Telstra comes to the rescue with the option to get yourself set up at very low cost. You just buy the wireless modem outright – prices range from $39 for a simple USB stick modem to $149 for a feature-packed wireless hotspot (5G modems are on the way, though pricing’s not yet known). The modem comes with its own SIM card, which you simply put into your new device and activate. Then recharge with the amount of data you need, with options going from $20 for a 5GB data recharge up to $50 for 35GB, with the ability to roll unused data over to the next month. For longer-term access, 12-month recharges of 40GB and 180GB are also available.

Telstra Mobile plans with free sport added

Telstra offers full access to live and on-demand games from AFL, AFLW, NRL, Netball and A-League for Telstra mobile customers. Just take a Telstra postpaid (from $55 p/m) or Prepaid ($30 recharge) mobile plan and you’re in!

On the WiMAX side of things, the key players are Lightning Broadband and iiNet, though both only serve specific areas. iiNet only operates in certain areas of South Australia. Lightning Broadband’s scope is wider, and they claim speeds up to 100 Mbps both down and up. Their cheapest plan delivers 20 Mbps and costs $155 per month; with the company now also embracing Fibre to the Building technology, speeds of up to an eye-watering 500 Mbps are available However, these plans are only available in apartment buildings that have been pre-wired for their service.

The verdict?

If you don’t have access to fixed line broadband at a decent speed via copper, cable or fibre where you live, both 4G/5G and WiMAX-based wireless broadband may be able to come to the rescue. Increasingly, plans offered via these services start to compete with higher-end ADSL plans as well as the NBN. Great news for those in a connectivity blackspot. When completed, the NBN should help eliminate these issues for most people. But until then, explore the wireless space to see if you can solve your lack of decent broadband by doing away with cables completely. You may find you prefer it for its flexibility and speed.

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