Group Test - Mobile Broadband

Mobile broadband dongles have proved to be the biggest technology success of the year. We take a snapshot look at the performance and packages of each of the networks to see which one is best for business.

Mobile broadband dongles have proved to be the biggest technology success of the year. We take a snapshot look at the performance and packages of each of the networks to see which one is best for business.

Introduction

There's no doubt that Mobile broadband is huge - if you seen any newspaper or have travelled on public transport anytime this year you can't fail to have spotted advertising for mobile broadband dongles where ever you go.

It's the latest evolution in mobile computing. A few years ago Wi-Fi integrated into laptops revolutionised the way we worked. No longer did we have to be tied down to a networked PC to work and to communicate your laptop could connect to the internet world via the magic of wireless.

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The next stage was data cards, which meant that you didn't even need a Wi-Fi hotspot you could get online and working anywhere there's a mobile phone signal.

The problem with these however, was that they were fiddly and required a laptop with a PC card. They were also expensive to buy, and the tariffs were very expensive, mostly limiting them to business users.

What really changed the game for mobile broadband though was the move to USB. No longer was mobile broadband tied to PC Card slots, they could be attached to pretty much any computer and that included desktop PCs and Macs.

Another advantage of going USB was that the drivers could be preinstalled on flash memory on the modem itself, and thanks to the wonders of plug and play, you could be up and running quickly and easily.

Furthermore, USB dongles are cheaper to manufacture than PC cards, a saving that can be passed on. But most significantly tariffs have come down to cut throat levels, with the networks falling over themselves to claw in market share. Chief of those was 3, who really set the low cost ball rolling when it launched a rock bottom 10 a month tariff, with a still usable 1GB cap. Only O2 has dragged its heels over releasing a dongle, only relatively recently coming to market and with deals only available to its own customers, a precedent it had already set with its fixed line offering.

Once O2 had come on board, we thought that the time was right to take each a dongle from each supplier and see how it performed in the real world.

How We Tested

A major issue facing the networks is that like the fixed line providers, they been censured for failing to live up to advertised speeds. Indeed some networks have been reporting the others to the Advertising Standards Authority for advertising misleading speeds, so we were keen to put that to the test with some real world testing of each network.

Vodafone and Orange claim to both offer 7.2Mb/sec coverage, 3 only quotes 2.8Mbps, while O2 and T-Mobile play it really safe with only 1.8Mb/s headline speeds.

Airports are obviously a key location for mobile broadband as there will always be hordes of business workers armed with laptops looking to get some work done as they wait for flights.

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While Heathrow would be the default airport for the business traveller, Vodafone claims it has full coverage at Luton, which was the nearest airport to this reviewer, so that's where we headed.

To test performance we conducted two different speeds tests. The first was from www.speedtest.net, which on a slick looking but flash heavy page lets you select from a range of server to conduct downloading and uploading speed tests. We chose Brussels rather than the recommended Maidenhead option as we found we got consistently higher results, presumably as less people hammer Belgium's internet connections that the those in the UK. To check consistency we also ran the speed test www.thinkbroadband.com, another popular UK site.

The test was run three times for each dongle and the final speed was averaged from these.

We also tested to see if any network had problems connecting to a VPN, using the internal network at Dennis Publishing.

Apart from this we checked Email through a Microsoft Exchange server, browsed some pages from the BBC web site and checked to see how smooth an experience we got with the BBC iPlayer.

We also look at the installation process, the ease of use and features of the software utility and take into account the value of the tariffs. We decided to standardise on the 18 month option for comparison purposes, as that seems to offer the best value mix.

O2

Average download speed: 240Kb/sec

Average up speed: 58.1Kb/sec

Rating: 3

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Price: 18 month contract: 12.77 ex.VAT

O2 is the late comer to the market, and only started offering a dongle back in April. If you look for Mobile Broadband from within O2's online business shop you'll only find it available with a mobile phone contract, not on its own.

Indeed at launch it was only available to O2's own customers, but it's now available to all though you'll have to go to the regular online shop to find this option, where you'll find that the cost is 20 including VAT. O2 also lets you link up to four mobile broadband dongles to one account.

The dongle itself is a sleek looking thing but I was unimpressed by the fact that it comes with a simple removable cap that could easily be lost. The surface appears to be a smooth black but in fact there are different coloured lights that illuminate depending on the speed of connection.

Installation

Installation is straightforward forward on both Windows XP and Vista. The install routine starts off with a splash banner after you plug it in followed by a wizard to install the connection manager. This takes a few moments before launching a compact widget. This neatly integrates a signal strength meter, and also has four small shortcut buttons from which you can launch programs, which is cute, if somewhat pointless.

O2's offering also includes free use of any or is 7,500 hotspots and a database of these is included with the software and it will on occasion offer to update itself with the latest information.

Performance

A reason O2 might be sweetening its offerings this way is that it knows that its performance isn't that great. O2 is only offering 1.8Mb/sec download speed, but so is T-Mobile, and in our test location it only managed 240Kb/sec from Speedtest.net. Uploads were actually faster at 244Kb/sec.

However, at ThinkBroadband the upload speed was only 58.1Kb/sec, though the download speed was a healthier 363.2Kb/sec.

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What's more, while it worked initially, when the rain came in the connection stalled, with no data coming through, even though the connection remained steady. To add salt in the wound images also appear very compressed, and there's no apparent way of turning this off. If your business requires working with images, O2 is a dead rubber. However, even if it's not, this is a disappointing dbut for O2's dongle service.

Orange

Average download speed: 1.15Mb/sec

Average up speed: 352.8Kb/sec

Rating: 4

Price: 18 month contract: 21.28 ex VAT

Orange's business package is called Business Everywhere and customers currently have a choice of two sticks - the large bulbous Option Icon 2, which offers quad-band support for roaming to the US, and the sleeker icon 225, which is only tri-band but doesn't look like it ate all the other dongles in the shop. We were sent both but as we were remaining on home soil we decided to test with the more lightweight 225.

Installation

The Orange installation routine is somehow much lengthier than the others and will occupy your laptop for a good five minutes or so and then require a restart. It's unclear why it needs to take this long when the setup of the sticks from other networks doesn't. Initially it's a bit of a hassle, but as it should only need to be done once it's not the end of the world.

After this, the small utility pops up and displays the relevant information such as network, connection type, signal strength and data usage, in a neat fashion. A Tools and Settings button at the bottom opens up on double click, providing access to the rest of the options.

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Like O2, the utility contains a Wi-Fi hotspot database, but oddly despite there being a Town search field, if you try and search for a town using it, it baulks at the request; you have to search via city instead.

Orange's 18 month tariff will cost you 21.28 excluding VAT, which is the most expensive of the bunch and this gives you a 5GB cap. The Option ICON 225 modem comes free, but if you want to stick to a 12 month contract it will cost you 30. It does come with 250 free Wi-Fi minutes, which sweetens the pill a little and Orange customers can use and BT Openzone, Cloud or WeRoam international hotspots.

If you do a lot of international travel Orange's 'Traveller' tariff offers up to 15MB of data but this will cost you 45 with a 12 month minimum contract. Or you can get 100MB of roaming allowance in Europe for 50 (130 for global). To compare, Vodafone has a beefier 200MB roaming bundle, but that will cost you 60.

Alternatively, if you roam on a non-Traveller' tariff, it will cost you 2.55/MB in Europe and 5.50/MB in the rest of the world. Orange has a 7 a day offer with a 1GB allowance, which seems generous for a single day's use.

Performance

As for the speeds on offer, the Orange site tells you different things depending on whether you're a consumer or business customer. On the consumer shop the speed stated is up to 1.8Mbps, while on the business shop it states - "Mobile Broadband up to 7.2Mbps". When we inquired, we were told up to 3.6Mbps.

Of course, what really matters is the speeds actually delivered. For download speeds, Orange didn't really distinguish itself, obtaining an average speed from Speedtest.net at our test location of 988Kbps. Using Thinkbroadband it managed to break the 1Mb/s barrier, hitting 1.15Mb/s. Upload speeds were 278Kb/sec from Speedtest.net, and 352.8Kbps from Thinkbroadband.

BBC iPlayer performance was smooth, while we were able to successfully connect to the internal company network over VPN.

While most of the time the Orange service was perfectly fine, though we did have issues reconnecting at times with the SIM card sometimes not being detected and it required some unplugging, replugging and some patience, before it started to behave.

As such, with these niggles, pricing at the higher end of the market and only average speed, Orange can only earn itself a middle-of-the-road overall score.

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T-Mobile

Average download speed: 1.2Mb/sec

Average up speed: 337.6Kb/sec

Rating: 4

Price: 18 month contract: 12.77 ex VAT

T-Mobile's dongle wears the company's distinct corporate colours and as such it's pink at either end, which might alone be enough to put some people off.

Installation

However, in use the software utility proved to be one of the fastest to pop up after insertion, installing with the minimum of fuss.

The interface has a standard Windows application look at feel, making it easier to get to grips with. We appreciated simply hitting connect on the left hand side of the software, without having to hunt for an over designed power button logo as with others. The utility also integrates a data transfer graph divided into daily, monthly, and yearly use, so you should always have clear visibility of how much you have downloaded, so you can stay within your cap.

Once connected pressing the Internet' button fired up the browser, though T-Mobile lets itself down slightly by launching Internet Explorer, with no way of switching this button to launch Firefox automatically instead, a slightly annoying issue.

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Performance

T-Mobile's service is currently limited to 1.8Mb/sec, but as we wrote this it announced plans to move to HSUPA , which could potentially take it to the top of the speed pile. As it stands though, it averaged 1.2Mbps download from both Speedtest.net and Thinkbroadband, a touch faster than Orange. Upload speeds were higher than Orange at the former, and lower at the latter so we can call that a draw.

Though we were able to use Skype on our test dongle, T-Mobile bans Skype on cheaper packages, so if you want to make use of VoIP, you'll have to fork out for its more expensive 35 a month Max package.

The BBC iPlayer however performed well, save for one interruption while it rebuffered. It was also happy to connect to our test VPN as it was to our Exchange server and general web browsing was fine.

Overall, the T-Mobile was reliable and consistent, but the blocking of Skype on the cheapest package is a downer. T-Mobile outperformed the premium priced Orange service, but wasn't quite as fast as 3 for downloads. However, T-Mobile's service is far stronger for upload speeds, quicker to initialise and has a simpler software interface.

3

Average download speed: 1.8Mb/sec

Average up speed: 58kb/sec

Rating: 4

Price: 18 month contract: 12.77 ex.VAT

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3 stands out in this group test for being the only one not to send in a USB Stick instead supplying a ZTE MF622 modem. It's not as bulky as the original 'soap-on-a-rope' dongle that 3 offered, being more oblong and noticeably thinner and it's also decked out in a rather fetching green and black livery. It also has a connector for an external aerial hidden under a rubber flap underneath, which may prove useful in an area of tricky coverage.

Alternatively, 3 does offer a sleeker white stick, similar in looks to Vodafone's. Alternatively there are modems available in black or even pink, or if you really want to get a bit 'crazee' you can apply a 'skin' to your modem. Thus if you feel a leopard pattern design conveys the right image for your business, you're in luck.

3 kick-started the seriously affordable broadband revolution with it's 10 a month deal but as this only has a 1GB limit we would recommend the 15 a month offering with its healthier 5GB ceiling. If you're happy with a 3GB cap, you only have to sign up for 12 months.

It's odd how the look of a piece of software can alter your perception of a non tangible wireless service, but there's no getting away from the fact that the 3 software looks decidedly budget and the style of the graphics and fonts indicate that it's a straight translation from Chinese. It a touch confusing to use, comes complete with a few random icons and has no bandwidth meter built-in so you'll need to get a third-party app to measure your usage.

3 has decided to turn off roaming by default, to avoid what it calls, bill shock', where slightly dopey users unaware that using the dongle abroad costs more come home to find that they've been charged thousands of pounds for downloading lost while in Majorca. However, even once enabled a 50 block is placed onto the account and you have to speak to them to get this lifted. Overall it's a admirably responsible approach and it should be applauded.

Remarkably, on participating 3 networks abroad, you can use your inclusive minutes to roam, which is great. Once your minutes are used up, it's only 10p/MB, including VAT. However, on no 3 networks, costs are 3/MB in Europe and 6/MB everywhere else not cheap!

Performance

In fact though, of all the networks 3 probably does the best job at managing performance expectations. It has a paragraph on its site that explains clearly the disparity between theoretical maximum network transfer speeds and real world performance. It says that it only claims 2.8Mbps, even though its network can support 3.6Mbps, but says honestly that, "Most people on our HSDPA Network can expect a speed ranging from 1Mb/sec to 1.5 Mb/sec". More power to 3 to being so transparent on this.

In fact, 3 proved to be the second fastest overall for downloads, coming in at 1.8Mb/sec for Speedtest.net and 1.5Mb/sec at Thinkbroadband not bad at all. However, where 3 saves bandwidth is upload speed with very slow speeds of 50.7Kb/sec and 58kb/sec respectively.

Surprisingly, we found that we had problems connecting to our Exchange server on three via Outlook, but had no problems doing the same over webmail.

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The VPN connection was also fine. Pleasingly images on web pages don't suffer from compression, so if viewing images, but not uploading them is important, 3 is a goer.

At 12.77 excluding VAT per month, there no doubting 3's value for money, but that only applies if your business needs don't require serious amount of uploading. It's good for casual browsing and document checking but if you need to transfer larger files up to a FTP or network location, you could feel quite hampered.

Vodafone

Average download speed: 3Mb/sec

Average up speed: 869Kb/sec

Rating: 5

Price: 18 month contract: 12.77 ex.VAT

Vodafone's was the first to introduce the revolutionary USB 'soap-on-a-rope' dongle, and it was the first to offer a shrunk down USB stick version too - the E172. It's also been the network that's pushed the speed aspect the most, so we had high hopes that if any network could achieve its headline speeds it would be Vodafone.

Remarkably, Vodafone is the only one to have given any thought to stopping you from losing the lid on its dongle, simply by putting a small hole in the lid and attaching it via some string to the main body. Sometimes it's the little things that count.

Tariff wise, Vodafone's 18-month tariff will set you back only 12.77 excluding VAT, with a 3GB bundle. Take care not to stray over the cap though, at 14.99 per GB you'll be heavily penalised.

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Slightly disappointingly, Vodafone expects you to contribute 16.17 for the actual modem, and will only give it to you for free if you choose a 24 month contract. It's out of bundle costs are slightly more expensive and if you want a European roaming bundle it will cost you a pricey 60 for 200MB, 95 for the rest of the world.

The utility itself is straightforward indicating faster speeds with a 3G+ icon, and providing basic data transfer information for monitoring use.

By default Vodafone applies image compression giving fuzzy images, but a Ctl F5 refresh brings up the page as it's meant to be. This is something of a nuisance however.

There were no problems connecting to the office VPN or getting to its web based Exchange server, BBC iPlayer was fine too at our test location, though we have to add that at others, we did experience pauses and rebuffering.

When it came to our main speed tests, we have to say that we were disappointed that even in a prime airport location we got nowhere near the headline 7.2Mbps touted everywhere by Vodafone. However Vodafone dongle did give us the fastest speeds of the day with a top speed of just over 3Mb/sec from Thinkbroadband and averaging 2.5Mb/sec, the fastest of the group by some way.

The upload speeds were also by far the best, at 829Kb/sec from Speedtest.net and 869kb/sec from Speedtest.net.

On that basis Vodafone earns our overall recommendation for business users, - you'll be highly unlikely to ever get anywhere near the maximum advertised speed, but it proved to be the fastest of the bunch. For us this outweighs its problems with image compression and the cost and if you want the fastest mobile broadband speeds Vodafone is the way to go.

Conclusion and Winner

On balance, we were relatively impressed by the mobile broadband experience. Being able to get online wherever you can get a mobile phone signal is tremendously liberating and can help drive up your productivity and your sales. Just try and living without a mobile broadband connection after you've had it, and you'll soon realise how much you and your business has come to rely on the technology.

For small business it could even potentially replace a fixed line service but employees would have to be very controlled with usage, especially of video content in order not to exceed the monthly caps. Certainly as an adjunct to a fixed line at base, it's a good technology.

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One thing to bear in mind is that for all the networks, when browsing via the dongle all your pages go through the network provider's servers, who will apply compression to speed up page downloads. Although this makes sense to alleviate stressed networks, it can be a problem if your work involves viewing images. Reloading pages using Control F5 will bring up the page without image compression but if you need to do this repeatedly, then mobile broadband dongles aren't the answer.

Of course our tests were done at Luton Airport and at our office in central London, so as with all tests of this nature, "your-mileage-may-vary". It's still vital to check out the coverage in the area where you are likely to be using your connection and if a network doesn't meet with your expectations in your area, then avail yourself of the 14-day return period

Of the USB stick collective, O2 is the last in and based on our tests it's the least compelling package with limited data speed throughput that does nothing to justify its pricing. The pricing is reasonable but it'll need a serious real world speed boost if it wants to compete. It's early days for the service though so things are likely to improve.

Orange proved to be an effective and steady service that we could rely on, but at 21.88 for the business service it did little to prove its worth over its competitors for sheer performance or value. Its 7.2Mbps coverage is limited to 40 per cent of the country, and in our tests we got better performance for less monthly outlay.

3 has done the most to popularise cheap mobile broadband for consumers and it matches these affordable tariffs with excellent download speeds. However this is tempered by poor upload speeds, the slowest of the five networks. If you're roaming on 3 in another 3 network the fact that you're charged as if you are home is superb, but if you're not in one of the few countries with a 3 network roaming is an expensive business. For the travelling businessman then, it's a less attractive option.

T-Mobile, it has to be said surprised us with it speeds, with it coming in faster than Orange in our tests, and while its downloads weren't as fast as 3, its upload speeds were, which makes it a better all round package on the 18 month tariff. We also liked the speed of the software installing and the look and feel of the app. What's more, with T-Mobile the first to announce even higher upload speeds from its already launched HSUPA service and things are looking good for it.

Winner:

The overall winner though is Vodafone, with speeds that were appreciably higher than the competition, and if time is money, that's what counts. Though the modem is free with the 24 month package we wouldn't be tempted to go for it over the 18 month. Technology moves at such as pace that 18 months is easily long enough to be locked into a deal, and that extra six months could prove frustrating down the line.

Though it wins the group test, the overall experience wasn't quite good enough to get it a full marks. Even though it was the fastest, the gap between the fabled 7.2Mb/sec maximum speed and the actual speed put paid to that, as did the image compression issues.

However, of the group, if you want to web pages to open reliably and downloads to complete quickly, in our tests your best bet is with Vodafone.

Verdict

The overall winner is Vodafone, with speeds that were appreciably higher than the competition. If time is money, that’s what counts. Though the modem is free with the 24 month package we wouldn't be tempted to go for it over the 18 month. Technology moves at such as pace that 18 months is easily long enough to be locked into a deal, and that extra six months could prove frustrating down the line. Though it wins the group test, the overall experience wasn’t quite good enough to get it a full marks. Even though it was the fastest, the gap between the fabled 7.2Mb/sec maximum speed and the actual speed put paid to that, as did the image compression issues. However, of the group, if you want to web pages to open reliably and downloads to complete quickly, in our tests your best bet is with Vodafone.

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