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.

13 comments
Tuskan360
Tuskan360

I have heard storries of people on vodafone having problems getting on to sites like facebook of flickr due to so called content controls. Can anyone confirm whether this is true and if there are similar problems with 3 or for that matter any of the other networks as I am thinking of getting 3G and it would be primarily for social networking sites (and administrating my website)

Larry the Security Guy
Larry the Security Guy

I connect my entire house with wired and wireless access. That's four PCs (Linux and Windows, two laptops (wireless), two PDAs, a PS2, a PS3 and a DS, plus visitors and their wireless toys. I don't think mobile broadband could do that for me. I may be wrong, and I reserve that right.

sparkatb
sparkatb

Ive been thinking of getting this mobile broadband, but im curious what are the ping times like with it? Could you please ping some websites to the UK (BBC.co.uk)and USA (CNN.com)? Thanks for your time!

balbino_ph
balbino_ph

I have purchased one of the Huawei 7.2mbps connect card from Mobily of Saudi Arabia, it is ok sometimes but there are times when I am getting a "page cannot be displayed". The 3.5g connection is there but the internet browser lost somewhere. I have to switch to other URL to continue using the internet. According to Mobily, the authentication protocol is CHAP and the DNS and WINS settings to Dynamic. I measured the internet speed with Mcafee, and the result varies, the highest is 200 and the lowest is 60 just a little bit higher than the standard 56k dial-up modem. Overall I enjoyed the downloading speed. Balbino N. Chan Saudi Arabian Airlines Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

balbino_ph
balbino_ph

I have one from Mobily of Saudi Arabia, It works ok but there are times when the Microsoft internet browser lost the page and return an error message"The page cannot be displayed". I run the internet speed test from Mcafee and the result varies, the highest is 200 and the lowest is 60, just faster than the 56k dial-up modem.

Tuskan360
Tuskan360

Vodafone do a wifi router that takes a 3G card and would therefor probably do what you would need. It is intended for very heavy use though so is probably overpriced for what you would need. Depends how much broadband you use though.

Justin Fielding
Justin Fielding

I found it sometimes drops the connection and I need to unplug/plug the modem before it will connect again. I'm wondering if this is a problem with the modems rather than the HSDPA service--if I reboot my machine with the modem plugged in the login process stalls; as soon as I unplug the modem it resumes!

Justin Fielding
Justin Fielding

Do you know if it uses standard 3G (384kbps) or is it running HSDPA?

balbino_ph
balbino_ph

It looks that you have a signal loss or your connecting high speed modem device is faulty. I suggest you bring your laptop to the nearest cell site to clear the signal loss problem. Cheers, Balbino N. Chan Saudi arabian airlines Riyadh

Justin Fielding
Justin Fielding

Found a solution! All of my issues with the modem / connection manager are resolved and it works like a dream. I'm just putting together a blog describing how I've managed to overcome the problems I encountered. The post should be up in the next few days.

damit_luda
damit_luda

I also have the 3 mobile broadband service, and as I have found with Justin, my modem sometimes just refuses to provide any internet connection at all. The signal strength would be strong, however all internet activity would be idle and can halt around a minute and up to about 10 mins. It seems to happen when the connection is switching itself between the 3G service and the HSPDA service, resulted by the HSPDA service dropping in and out. Perhaps this is similar to what you are experiencing?

Justin Fielding
Justin Fielding

I have a full signal but I have had my suspicions that the modem could be faulty. I'll see if I can have it replaced.

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