IT Week Executive Editor Martin Veitch tests out 3G connectivity with a USB modem for laptops
Theoretically, a 3G 'wireless broadband' connection is supposed to come into its own when you are on the move and need ad hoc access to the web or email. Some recent train journeys between London and Newcastle and Edinburgh to London, as well as several half-hour hops between London and its suburbs, provided me with opportunities to discover just how useful these products are.
I tested Thus’s Mobile 3G Broadband device aimed at customers of its Demon subsidiary. This is a Huawei-manufactured product that runs on the Vodafone network and Thus makes no attempt to cover up the fact that it is also available as the Vodafone Mobile Connect USB Modem.
The modem took just a few minutes to set up. This involved slotting in the SIM card then plugging the device into the laptop's USB port. Windows XP took about 30 seconds to recognise the product and install its native software. (Mac owners will need to run the disk provided and users of earlier versions of Windows will have to invoke a startup program.)
A console appeared on screen and with one click the connection was created. The console shows connection status and speed, as well as providing device management options.
The modem is small, not much larger than a box of matches, and connects via a short cable. It does not look particularly elegant hanging down from the laptop but it works well enough in practice and the lead may help prevent accidental damage if the modem should get caught on anything.
The contentious issues with 3G modems relate to speed and cost. On the journeys to the north and Scotland I could have paid for faster Wi-Fi access or taken advantage of a free service in first-class compartments. 3G data services are not cheap and businesses would be well advised to consider the implications of tariffs before rolling out accounts across large teams.
Service was very good with just one loss of connectivity. However, the colour-coded light on the modem and status software underlined the patchy nature of high-speed cellular connectivity in the UK, with GPRS availability much more common than 3G or HSDPA. Usability is similar to going back to a dial-up connection with occasional bursts of higher speeds.
My final takeaway is that 3G services are great for situations where there are no other options, and a serviceable alternative to Wi-Fi in some cases. But keep an eye on the price and don’t expect an experience comparable to fixed broadband.
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