What is an internet dongle?

·4-min read
A woman using a laptop (PA Wire)
A woman using a laptop (PA Wire)

Londoners are on the move again. With more of us on the go as the government’s lockdown roadmap unfolds and Covid-19 restrictions lift, the need for a reliable mobile broadband connection is greater than it’s been for well over a year.

How can I get broadband access while I’m on the move?

One option is to use public wi-fi hotspots, although being in range when you need to get online is never guaranteed. What’s more, internet connections in outlets such as coffee shops aren’t always reliable – and they may also not be secure, putting your private or business data at risk.

And while some are free to use, there might also be a cost issue.

As hotspots struggle with increased demand, another option is to choose your own broadband wireless dongle. Also known as a wi-fi stick or USB network adaptor, this handy piece of kit helps you to stay connected while you’re out of the house or away from the office.

How do dongles work?

A dongle plugs into your laptop’s USB port and then acts as a portable modem.

Once plugged in, the dongle connects to the internet in the same way as your smartphone and gives the user 3G, 4G or 5G connectivity. These refer to different generations of mobile technology with 3G the oldest (and slowest), 4G the most common, and 5G the speediest.

At the moment, 5G is limited mainly to cities and large towns. You can check mobile availability in your area by using this Ofgem checker.

The following providers offer access to 5G:

  • BT

  • EE

  • GiffGaff

  • O2

  • Sky

  • Tesco Mobile

  • Three

  • Virgin Mobile

  • Vodafone

  • Voxi

Dongles aren’t a substitute for a stable, unlimited fixed home broadband line. And mobile broadband isn’t ideal for downloading large chunks of streamed data such as videos, or gaming. But dongles are ideal if you’re on the go and need access to the internet beyond the confines of your mobile phone.

Mobile broadband may also appeal to students who need internet access in several locations such as their room, library or during lectures.

How do I get a dongle one and what does it cost?

Dongles are supplied by mobile network providers. In the same way your mobile phone comes with either a pay-as-you-go or monthly contract, the same arrangement applies to broadband dongles.

If you buy your dongle from Vodafone, for example, your laptop will hook up to the Vodafone network once the dongle has been activated.

A pay-as-you-go option is best if you don’t need access to mobile broadband very often or aren’t sure how much data you’ll be needing. Just pay the upfront amount for the dongle, typically £30 to £50, then top up as and when you use it. Choose the minimum amount of data to begin with, check what you use and upgrade according to need.

Alternatively, if you choose a monthly contract, you’ll receive a dongle for free but can expect to pay around £15pm for, say, a 24-month plan. Choose an unlimited deal to avoid restricting your data usage each month.

Certain data plans will also allow you to use your dongle abroad, although this can still be an expensive way of getting online while overseas.

Read the small print

Each network provider is different, so watch out for the terms and conditions attached to a contract before signing up. Some offer a ‘cooling off’ period for customers dissatisfied with service or network performance, enabling them to return the dongle and cancelling the contract without having to pay extra.

Remember, also, that cancelling a mobile broadband contract before the term is up may still require the customer to pay the remaining part of that subscription. Read the small print first before committing to a plan.

What are the benefits of broadband dongles?

  • Flexibility to get online while out and about and without the need to rely on wi-fi hotspots, coffee shops and possibly patchy connections.

  • Simple to set up. They just plug into your laptop’s USB port and you’re online.

  • Compact and getting faster.

  • No need for an extra charger because they’re powered by a laptop’s battery.

  • Useful back-up to a fixed home broadband connection.

What about the downsides to dongles?

  • More expensive than a standard fixed-line broadband connection.

  • Connections can be slower than fixed landline alternatives.

  • Only connect to one device at a time and the device will require a USB port.

  • Performance depends on the mobile phone reception in a particular area.

  • Often have monthly data limits.

  • Can be expensive when using abroad.

Alternative to dongles

A mi-fi device is similar to a broadband dongle, it just connects to the internet in a different way.

Unlike a dongle, which can only be used by the device into which it’s plugged, mi-fi works like a broadband router. It creates a personal wi-fi hotspot allowing any device with the appropriate password to get online.

Being able to hook up several devices at once such as smartphones, tablets and laptops is useful, but will drain your data download limit more rapidly.

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