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While many of us rely on either fibre or ADSL broadband in our homes, you may not want the hassle of wires and cables.

For instance, if you travel a lot and like the flexibility of hopping online without relying on a phone line, or if you share a house with several others and you all need the internet at the same time; perhaps you’re a gamer needing to use a wireless console. In all these scenarios, wireless broadband is a winner.

In this guide, we’ll cover four of the most popular wireless options, from dongles and MiFi to tethering and public WiFi hotspots. Read on for the portable alternative to standard home broadband.

What’s MiFi and how does it work?

MiFi is also known as a personal WiFi device, pocket WiFi or portable hotspot and basically works as a little router. It connects to 4G and broadcasts WiFi so you can connect any compatible device - phones, laptops, tablets and games consoles - that are within range.

How fast is MiFi?

Your personal WiFi device or MiFi will be the same as a 3G or 4G mobile connection, depending where you are and how effective the network coverage is. Vodafone, for instance, promotes 4G speeds and up to 150Mbps for its 30-day MiFi deal, offering 50GB of data.

Be aware, though, if you share your personal hotspot you may experience dips in speed.

How do I set up a portable hotspot?

Happily, MiFi devices are simple to set up with no need to install any software. Just turn it on and wait for the signal to appear on your computer or laptop. This shouldn't take more than a few seconds.

Once your device detects the signal, you'll be able to get online instantly.

What's a dongle?

A dongle is like a USB pen. Pop off the lid and plug it into the USB port on your computer to get online.

Some dongles are used for Bluetooth, extra security or other reasons, but for the purpose of this guide, we're talking about the sort we'd use for mobile broadband.

How does it work?

Dongles are essentially tiny modems that can connect to wireless or the mobile broadband networks (3G or 4G) that would get you online through your phone. They fit neatly into the USB port for a compact, portable internet connection.

Why should I use a dongle?

Some advantages of using a dongle are:

  • Portability – they’re tiny and compact enough to slip into your pocket to take with you, wherever you go

  • Usable abroad, where your dongle plan allows

  • Charges through your computer or laptop, so it won’t run out of power

  • Great for emergencies where you need to get online and there’s no other option

  • Works in some areas where fixed line broadband isn’t up to scratch

  • Internet access anywhere, whether that’s on the beach, in a coffee shop, on a train, at the shopping centre, etc

  • Flexible and temporary – ideal for those who don’t want to commit to long-term broadband, with plenty of short-term and pay-as-you-go plans to pick from

Why shouldn’t I use one?

And some of the reasons to pause before deciding on a dongle:

  • Requires a USB port, so they can’t be used on tablets or mobile phones

  • Only connects one device at a time

  • Costs more than fixed line broadband and usually offers slower speeds

  • You may not be able to download as much as you’d like

  • You’re also limited by the availability of a solid 4G signal – if there isn’t any, you won’t be able to get online

What’s tethering?

Unlike the sort that involves horses, tethering is a way to transform your smartphone into a mobile hotspot or WiFi router.

When you switch on the tethering feature in your phone, you'll create a local wireless internet connection. You can then use this connection to link your tablet, laptop or PC to the internet.

How does tethering work?

Almost every smartphone these days lets you tether via WiFi. You can also connect your laptop or tablet through Bluetooth or USB (if you have an Android tablet, like the Samsung Tab S3).

When you turn on tethering, you're creating a WiFi hotspot that'll show up in the list of available networks on your device. Rather like a portable router.

Connecting your device through WiFi will give you a quicker speed than Bluetooth, and a USB connection is even faster.

How do I connect to a public WiFi hotspot?

Since so many of us have an insatiable appetite for staying connected, many public places now offer customers free wireless broadband. As a result, you're likely to find a WiFi hotspot at local pubs, restaurants, shops, train stations, airports and more locations besides.

To hunt down a hotspot, you'll need to enable WiFi on your device, whether that's a smartphone, laptop, tablet or console. It'll then reveal a list of the available networks; concentrate on those that let you connect without entering a password - usually from BT, O2, Sky-owned The Cloud, Virgin Media or the name of your location (Library of Birmingham WiFi, for example).

Once you've found one, click on it and then you'll either be asked to register or check a box to connect. After doing so, you should then see the reassuring WiFi symbol that signals you're online.

Where can I find public WiFi hotspots?

There're four main password-free public WiFi hotspots.


BT offers broadband and mobile customers (along with Vodafone and EE customers) free access to a not-too-shabby five million WiFi hotspots. Non-BT customers can use them, too, but will have to pay. Allowances range from as little as one hour to a year-long contract.

You'll usually find BT WiFi in hotels, shopping centres, cafes, department stores, service stations and converted payphone booths.

O2 WiFi

The generous folk at O2 offer free WiFi hotspots to all - as long as you don't download more than 10GB a month (unless you're an O2 customer, in which case, knock yourself out).

Go grab yourself some O2 WiFi hotspot goodness at high street chains like Debenhams, Costa Coffee and House of Fraser.

Sky WiFi

Also known as The Cloud, Sky broadband customers get free unlimited access to public WiFi. Non-Sky customers will still be able to connect for free most of the time, though may be given a time limit.

You'll find Sky WiFi and The Cloud in 20,000 hotspot locations across the UK in places like Pret, Eat and Caff Nero.

Sky even has a nifty app, the Hotspot Finder, which you can download to locate the nearest WiFi hotspots.

Virgin Media WiFi

Those who hate being parted from WhatsApp and checking emails will be relieved to know that Virgin Media’s got your back with its WiFi hotspots. At the time of writing, it’s available in 250 London underground stations, in ticket halls, escalators, walkways and platforms.

Access is free for all Virgin broadband and mobile customers. Non-mobile customers can get online after paying for a WiFi Pass; choose from a day, a week or a month’s worth of WiFi.

If you found this article helpful, take a look at our full list of broadband guides and advise we have available.