Last month I took a look at what the various mobile broadband operators have on offer and gave Three mobile's HSDPA service a test run. Overall, I was quite impressed by Three's service but I didn't feel it could quite replace the speed and reliability of a more traditional fixed line broadband service. Vodafone has the fastest mobile broadband network currently available in the UK. (Verizon Wireless, in the U.S., is a joint venture of Verizon Communications and Vodaphone.) At 7.2 Mbps, Vodafone's service has the potential to offer two and a half times the bandwidth of Three's new 'turbo' network and over 14 times that of a standard 3G network.I've been using Vodafone's 7.2 mobile broadband package for a few weeks over Christmas and have been able to test its performance in various environments. Before I get down to the usage, let's take a look at what you get.
What's in the box
Much the same as with Three's USB modem, the Vodafone device is neatly presented in a DVD style plastic box that contains a SIM card, modem, and various types of USB adaptors. The modem is a custom design Huawei E272 and is beautifully styled. Just like Three mobile's modem (a Huawei E220), Vodafone's device mounts itself as a mass storage device and installs the necessary drivers/software, which is handy as it makes driver discs a thing of the past. There is a very nice little USB to mini USB adaptor included that makes working cable free quite possible.
Putting it to work
Installing the Vodafone connection manager was painless and the application seems to be very stable. I have not seen a repeat of the problems encountered with Three's USB modem whereby a reboot was necessary after disconnecting. I'm convinced that the issues I've had with Three's service is down to the modem driver and connection manager as the modem works flawlessly with my Mac.
Wanting to get a less biased idea of how HSDPA-based mobile broadband performs, I tested it while travelling over the recent holiday period. I tested both the Vodafone and Three mobile services in a variety of different locations. I was most interested to find out how the mobile broadband would cope with rural areas where there could be a real need for such services due to the patchy availability of DSL. I wanted to find out whether or not Vodafone's 7.2Mbps service was worth the additional cost over Three mobile's for an average user?Coverage
I have been very impressed with Vodafone's coverage. In both a small town somewhere in the Yorkshire dales and in three different motorway service stations (in pretty much the middle of nowhere), the Vodafone signal was strong and the modem connected at full speed. Three's network couldn't quite compete. I have been able to get a full-speed connection in all of the towns and cities where I've tried, but I wasn't quite as successful in those service stations. While I was able to pick up a signal, the network wasn't HSDPA-enabled so I had to connect at the standard 3G data rate.Continuity
As for working on the go, I had a passenger browse the Internet while travelling down the motorway at a pretty steady 70MPH. Vodafone came up a clear winner here due to their extended coverage The switchover between mobile cells was fully transparent with streaming video running uninterrupted. Because the Three network doesn't quite have full HSDPA coverage of rural areas, the modem would often fall back to standard 3G rates. While that wasn't too much of a problem browsing the Web (just a bit slow), it did mean that video playback could be unpredictable.Speed
I have to say that I have been a little disappointed with the speed of Vodafone's 7.2 Mbps mobile broadband. I'm not disappointed because it's slow but because it's slower than it's claimed to be. Under general use, I thought the download speed was pretty much on par with that of Three's. This is still very usable, but it's doesn't feel anything like the two and a half times faster, and it should do. I ran various broadband speed tests; as usual, they gave wildly different results! On average, Vodafone's score was around 2Mbps with the highest being 3Mbps, and the lowest was 512Kbps-that's not a million miles away from Three's average score of 1.5Mbps. I know 1.5-2Mbps sounds slow these days, but it's actually more than enough. If I can watch a program on the BBC's iPlayer site without interruption then I would deem an Internet line quite adequate for most purposes.
Worth the extra?
At the end of the day this is what it comes down to. Is Vodafone's 7.2 Mbps mobile broadband worth the additional cost? The standard monthly cost of the 7.2 Mbps mobile broadband package is £25 (about $50) per month-that's £10 per month more than Three. The data allowance is the same for both at 3GB/month and the USB modem is included with a 24-month contract.
For business users who will be constantly on the move, I think the extended coverage of Vodafone's network will be an important factor in justifying the additional cost. The added stability of Vodafone's modem drivers and software is another thing to consider; being able to put the computer in to standby and then reconnect right away after waking the machine up is pretty much a must for anybody hopping between meetings. I would think the £10 per month premium for Vodafone's mobile broadband is easily justified.
For a casual user who doesn't depend on connectivity in the same way as a business user, I don't think the extra cost is warranted. The perceived connection speed of Three's mobile broadband is every bit as good as Vodafone's within most towns and cities. Perhaps the additional cost of Vodafone's package would be justified for those outside of Three's ‘turbo' coverage area as the standard 3G data rate is rather slow.
Personally, I'm not going to pay the additional premium for Vodafone's extended coverage or ‘faster' network. Three mobile's package offers enough coverage and speed to fulfil my connectivity requirements while roaming around. I am, however, going to hold-off until the reliability issues with the modem have been resolved.