I've been keeping an eye on various mobile broadband offerings and noticed they are much more readily available these days. What's more, it seems they are affordable and very usable when compared to the previous generation of mobile data services. The majority of mobile phone networks in the UK now offer HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access), which is a 3G-based mobile broadband capable of up to 14.4 Mbit/s down-links.
From what I can see, the fastest available at the moment is offered by Vodafone: 7.2 Mbit/s using a USB modem with a data limit of 3GB per month. You have to buy the modem for £49.99 and subscribe for 18 months at £25 per month. That all adds up to a total of £499.99 (~1034 USD).
Three are offering a slower 2.8 Mbit/s service with the same 3GB limit as Vodafone but for only £15 per month. The USB modem is free with a minimum contract of 24 months making the total cost £360 (~745 USD).
T-Mobile are offering a free USB modem with their Web'n'walk plan. The monthly charge is £20 and minimum contract length is 24 months which works out to £480. While the sales pages all have 'unlimited data' splashed all over them, reading the small print reveals that if you frequently use more than 3GB per month then the service speed will be reduced until the tariff is upgraded. Worse news is that without any of these restrictions, the T-mobile network only offers 1.8 Mbit/s mobile broadband.
Finally, o2 have a 3G data service with the same 3GB data limit for £30 per month. The minimum contract length for this one is 12 months. Add £49.99 for a modem and you have a total cost of £409.99 (~848 USD) — hardly competitive at all. Other than cost, the biggest problem with o2's mobile broadband is that I couldn't find any information on its speed! I'd imagine if it were in the top end of what's available elsewhere then o2 would want to advertise it—for that reason I'll assume it's not.
There's no doubt that mobile broadband is more affordable than ever. That said,I'm not sold on any of the current packages. Three mobile are offering the best deal but at half of the speed of Vodafone. Three are only just rolling out their 2.8 Mbit/s ‘Turbo' network so I can't see that they'll be upgrading to 7.2 Mbit/s any time soon. I guess the choice of provider comes down to what you want to use mobile broadband for. If this was an alternative to traditional broadband then it may well be worth paying the extra for Vodafone's faster service (it's actually around the same price as a home broadband package of similar speed). If you simply want mobile connectivity when you're out and about, then Three's 2.8 Mbit/s service should be more than adequate and certainly represents good value.
I'm not convinced that the mobile broadband market is as competitive as it can be. I think I'll hold off on locking myself in to a two-year contract as I'm sure there'll be some better offers available over the next six months.
If you currently use mobile broadband, I'd be interested to hear what you are using and how you've found the service.