How Does a Portable Internet Stick Work?
By John Lister
Updated September 01, 2017
A mobile broadband stick is a device for connecting your computer to a cellular data network, getting internet access in the same way as on a smartphone. The name comes from the fact that the device plugs into a USB port in the same way as a memory stick. Mobile broadband sticks can be useful if you need to work on the go and can't get a Wi-Fi signal, or if you live in an area without affordable fixed-line broadband service.
The pricing structure for mobile broadband sticks comes in three varieties, similar to the way you can buy a smartphone. Some phone networks give the sticks away free of charge as long as you sign up for a mobile broadband subscription. Networks may also sell you the stick at a subsidized price in return for signing up for a subscription plan – usually a less expensive plan that you need to get the stick without up-front cost. In rare cases you may be able to simply buy the stick without any service commitment.
A mobile broadband stick contains a SIM card or a similar card for accessing a particular network. In theory, you can replace this card with one from a rival network. In practice, however, this may be difficult or impossible because the design of the stick doesn't allow easy access to the card. The stick may also be "locked," meaning it won't work with a new card from a rival network without the original network's permission. Make sure to find this out before buying a stick if you want to be able to use it for a different network.
Most sticks work over the same 3G or 4G data network that smartphones use to access the internet. This means speeds will likely be considerably slower than fixed-line broadband services, and coverage may be patchy or nonexistent in some locations. Because you need a special cellular data subscription or a prepaid, or "pay as you go," package, using a mobile broadband service is often more expensive than using a landline broadband service, and/or have much tighter restrictions on monthly usage. In many cases, this means you won't find it practical to carry out some computing tasks such as streaming online video. Some sticks work with 4G wireless broadband that offers faster speeds and sometimes higher data use limits, though the monthly service fees for this service are usually much higher than a 3G service.
Branding and Other Variations
Some retailers and networks that offer mobile broadband services also offer devices known generically as "personal hotspots," "laptop sticks," and under brand names such as "Mi-Fi." These transmit and receive cellular data signals in the same way as a mobile broadband stick, but do not need to connect to a computer via USB; instead, they connect via Wi-Fi. Some personal hotspots can connect to multiple devices simultaneously, meaning you can share a connection. One drawback is that personal hotspots often have their own battery that needs recharging after a few hours; however, you can connect some models to a computer or power outlet through a USB cable to provide a power source. A personal hotspot can sometimes solve coverage problems in the home because you can move it about much more freely to find a good reception spot, rather than being restricted by your computer's location as with a mobile broadband stick.
A professional writer since 1998 with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism, John Lister ran the press department for the Plain English Campaign until 2005. He then worked as a freelance writer with credits including national newspapers, magazines and online work. He specializes in technology and communications.