Can dongles cut the cost of broadband?

Published by Rebecca Atkinson on 17 December 2009.
Last updated on 03 October 2013

A dongle is a wireless adapter that, when inserted into the USB port on your computer or laptop, allows you to connect to the web from anywhere - as long as there’s a 3G or 4G signal.

The ever-increasing desire for ‘internet on the go’ has seen the humble dongle rise in popularity; a quarter of a million are sold every month in the UK alone, according to

But are these wireless network devices really worth having, what's the cost, and are there any catches worth looking out for?

The options

You can either opt for a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) dongle or a monthly contract.


Unlike mobile phone PAYG packages (where you top up your account literally as you go) this type of dongle package normally requires you to pay for upfront credit.

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This will give you a specific amount of mobile broadband time; so you pay for a month’s usage rather than per megabyte of the broadband data you actually use. Some dongles even allow you to pay for just one day.

2. Monthly contract

If you opt for an ongoing monthly dongle, then you will be required to sign a contract, and a direct debit agreement. Tariffs normally range from a year, to 18 or even 24-months.

The longer the contract, the cheaper your monthly bill may be – however, you do lose flexibility and face having to pay a cancellation fee should you later change your mind or if a better tariff later becomes available.

If you’re unsure, look out for dongle contracts that allow you to cancel subject to a pre-agreed notice period.

PAYG versus contract

PAYG Flexible – you’re not tied down You’ll probably have to pay for the dongle stick
  Easy to switch or cancel Tend to have lower memory than contract dongles
Contracts Can work out cheaper You could miss out of new, competitive deals
  Dongle stick is normally free Cancellation fees


Providers and packages

Once you’ve decided the type of dongle most suitable for you, the next step is to pick a provider. Currently seven companies offer mobile broadband service – BT, Virgin Mobile, O2, Orange, T-Mobile, 3 and Vodafone.

The cost of both PAYG and contract dongles will vary from provider to provider; you can shop for contracts on websites such as broadbandchoices (which is accredited by Ofcom) or by checking the individual providers’ websites.

The cost shouldn’t be your only consideration. While mobile broadband work for most of the UK, coverage can be patchy – especially in rural areas.

Check the websites of the different providers for their 3G and 4G mobile broadband coverage maps – and double-check this against the Ofcom’s 3G and 4G mobile maps, which shows the coverage of all UK networks.

It might also be worth speaking to people in your area to find out the quality of reception of their mobile phones.

You should also compare speeds – this will depend on the signal of the mobile operator with whom you have your agreement. However, some providers offer a faster form of 3G – known as 3G+ or HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access).

The data allowance is another important consideration – this will determine the size of files you can download. Most of the most competitive dongles (PAYG and contact) offer 3GB of data allowance. If you are prepared to pay more it is possible to get 5GB.

However, in comparison, the standard data allowance for fixed-line broadband is around the 8GB mark.

As well as limiting what you can do online, the data allowance can also end up costing you, as exceeding your allowance will see you hit with extra charges.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that, while your dongle might work abroad, access to the internet will not be included in your tariff – so expect to be hit with extortionate fees. In addition, both PAYG and contract dongles tend to come with caps - so unlimited surfing is not an option.

On the plus side, some mobile broadband providers offer free Wi-fi minutes, while others will throw in sweeteners such as a free laptop. However, make sure you look at the entire package to make sure it’s right for you.


  • Wireless broadband access wherever you are (subject to 3G/4G signal)
  • Greater flexibility and convenience
  • Some providers may offer a discount on mobile internet if you already have a mobile phone service
  • Potential for ‘sweeteners’ such as free Wi-fi minutes (allowing you to stream or download onto a laptop) or even a free laptop
  • Dongles are increasingly becoming smaller, sleeker and faster
  • No need for a fixed-line telephone
  • Often double up as a memory stick
  • No need to charge, as dongles run on the battery of your computer


In the majority of cases, dongles have lower usage caps, as well as download limits of 3GB – or even as low as 1GB in some cases.  

This means that, while they are suitable for people who simply want to check emails and do light browsing, they probably won’t satisfy heavy broadband users, or those that want to download large files such as films, TV or music.


While some people think dongles are a secure way to surf the web, this is not true and your computer can still become infected with viruses. Before using a dongle, you must therefore install the necessary firewalls, antivirus, anti-spyware and anti-spam programmes.

Also, check whether your computer has the correct specifications to connect to mobile broadband with the mobile broadband provider before you sign up.

Most experts agree that most fixed-line broadband contracts offer better value than mobile broadband.

However, if you’re looking for a flexible way to go online while out and about then a dongle offers a simple solution.

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