Hardware

Does Three mobile broadband beat your fixed-line broadband?


Last week, I took a brief look at the mobile broadband packages on offer right now. Vodafone came out on top with the fastest service of 7.2Mbps (claimed) although at £25 ($50) their monthly fee is at the higher end of the spectrum. Three mobile looked to be in the middle of the field with a 2.8Mbps service (again claimed) and the overall lowest cost of ownership with plans starting at £10 ($20) per month. I was most surprised to find out that O2 only offer 384Kbps 3G mobile Internet products-this is also the most expensive of all offerings at £30 ($60) per month! A post I found on silicon.com suggested that O2 were rolling out HSDPA back in 2005; I wonder what happened?Reports as to the quality of HSDPA-based mobile broadband packages seem to be quite varied. Some people praise its wide area of coverage while others complain about poor reception and lower than anticipated operating speeds. It's these mixed opinions that have made me hold back from locking myself into a long term contract. I've now been given opportunity to try out Three's mobile broadband package and see what I think of it — great!

Installation

The package comes presented in a very neat DVD-style plastic case, which houses the Huawei USB modem, short and long USB cables, a SIM card, user guide, and terms of purchase. I noticed on the terms of purchase that you have three days to return the purchase and cancel the contract if buying from a store and 14 days if buying over the phone or Internet. That's a pretty good deal for anyone who's not sure whether mobile broadband is for them. I think it's also a requirement of UK retail/distance selling laws so similar terms should be found with other providers too.

The USB modem supports both Windows and Mac OS. So far I have only tested it with Windows; installation is straightforward with no need for any installation media or download. When first connected, the USB modem shows up as a Mass Storage Device and automatically installs the modem drivers and connection manager-pretty neat. Once the modem drivers are installed the Mass Storage Mode is disabled. The modem has three operating modes, which are identified by the colour of its LED. Green shows that the modem is operating in GPRS mode, blue signifies a 3G connection (up to 384 Kbps), and Turquoise/Light Blue means the modem is connected to a HSDPA network (up to 2.8 Mbps).

General use

Setting up and using the 3G modem is easy. The connection manager has relatively few setup options available. The only one of real interest is the operating mode. If there is no useable 3G signal in range but a 2G GPRS signal is found, then the modem can connect to that. There is an option to allow this dual mode operation or restrict it to 3G only. Why would you want to disable this? Surely even dial-up speed GPRS is better than nothing? Not always; if it happens that you're connected via the 2G GPRS service rather than the 3G network, then some service providers will charge an additional fee for the GPRS data usage. With GPRS bandwidth costing up to £5 ($10) per MB that could lead to a nasty surprise at the end of the month! Luckily Three mobile don't do this — they will offset any GPRS data use against your monthly broadband allowance so it's safe to enable GPRS as a fall-back.

So far I've tested the mobile broadband in several locations from cafés to train stations and supermarket car parks! In all instances I've been able to obtain a reasonably strong 3G signal and connect to the HSDPA network. Broadband speed tests vary but average out to an indicated 1.5 Mbps downstream and 128 Kbps upstream. I can quite happily watch a live news stream from the BBC's website without being interrupted by re-buffering or dropped frames.

Using HSDPA at home has been a little more hit and miss. I can pick up a 3G signal in most areas of the house although there seem to be black spots where I can't receive a thing. When I have a signal the service works fine. I guess this is pretty standard and something most users will have experienced with their mobile phone at some point. If you have problems picking up a 3G signal on a mobile phone in your area then mobile broadband may not be for you. Three mobile offer a coverage guide to help you work out if your area has HSDPA available yet.

During testing I have had a few issues with the modem and/or connection manager. Despite the connection manager and modem indicating a solid connection, I have found that sometimes the computer would refuse to connect to the Internet. This could be rectified by messing around with the modem (disconnect, close the connection manager, reconnect the modem and restart the software) or rebooting the computer. I have my suspicions that this issue may actually be caused by the BitDefender Anti-Virus/Firewall/Anti-Malware software I'm using. I'm going to test the mobile broadband on another computer (without BitDefender) and see whether I can recreate the problem.

Conclusion

Overall I'm quite impressed with Three's mobile broadband package.  The speed is quite acceptable, the monthly cost is reasonable, and I've yet to experience any serious reception problems. Being based in London, I suppose it's not surprising that I can pick up a HSDPA enabled signal pretty much everywhere I go-this may well be a different story for those living in the countryside. As luck would have it, I'll be visiting some family in the North of England this Christmas, which will give me the perfect opportunity to test the service in rural areas.

Based on my experience so far would I recommend it? I guess that depends on what you want. For casual Internet users who surf the Web, send/receive e-mail, IM and download relatively small amounts of data, I would say this is an ideal solution. It's no more expensive than fixed line broadband and, when combined with a laptop, gives complete freedom of movement. Mobile broadband is also ideal for business users who want to be able to log on and communicate above dial-up speeds without all the hassle of tracking down a Wi-Fi hotspot.

I tend to be quite an intensive Internet user so would have to say that there is no way I could replace my home broadband service with mobile broadband. However with packages costing as little as £10 per month, I'm very tempted to sign up in addition to my home broadband as the freedom HSDPA-based mobile broadband gives you is great and a huge improvement over the barely usable GPRS data service.

I give Three's mobile broadband the all-around thumbs up. If you're using HSDPA-based broadband leave a comment and let me know how you've gotten on.

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