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 ADSL. Or maybe you’re kilometres away from the nearest 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 accelerating and it’s expected to solve connectivity problems for many consumers, at least in part. But what can you do in the meantime? 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 mobile phone network. 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. What you get with these plans is a data-only SIM plan bundled with a 4G 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. There’s a good reason why one major company recommends that you “position your modem close to a window to maximise signal strength”!

True wireless broadband, meanwhile, is more often referred to as “fixed wireless”. This is a technology which the NBN will be 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.

NBN Broadband Plans

Essential Plan
  • Up to 20Mbps Standard Evening
  • 100GB Data
  • NBN 25™ Fixed Line
$70/mth
Min Cost - $286 (inc. $216 modem)

NBN UNLIMITED Plan - BASIC SPEED
  • Up to 9Mbps Basic Evening
  • Unlimited Data
  • NBN 12™ Fixed Line
$49.90/mth
Min Cost - $49.90 for 6 months, then $59.90 ongoing

nbn™ Broadband Basic (Small)
  • Up to 9Mbps Basic Evening
  • 100GB Data
  • NBN 12™ Fixed Line
$50/mth
Min Cost - $50 over 1 mth

NBN Standard Plus Month to Month
  • Up to 40Mbps Standard Plus Evening
  • Unlimited Data
  • NBN 50™ Fixed Line
$70/mth
Min Cost - $130

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. Once complete – and with 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. Southern Phone keeps things incredibly affordable with its Green 25 Mobile Broadband plan – which gives you a healthy 15Gb per month on the Optus 4G network for only $33. If you need more data than that, OVO can give you 50GB per month – and free access to the OVOPlay sports streaming service – for only $49.95/month on their Extra Large data plan.

By comparison, Telstra offers full access to their 4G network via their regular phone plans, with big data allowances now including 30GB bonus for a total of 90GB. The plan also includes unlimited talk and text and costs $89/month.

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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 25 Mbps and costs $75 per month, while full-throttle 100 Mbps will set you back $120 per month with unlimited downloads. Competitive with many fibre NBN plan prices. However, there is an initial installation cost for the WiMAX antenna of $499 – so this one’s not for those looking for a temporary solution.

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 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. Down the track, the NBN should help eliminate these issues. But until then, explore the wireless space to see if you can solve your lack of decent broadband by doing away with cables completely.

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