BOOT CAMP 548 (28/10/08)

Mobile Broadband, part 4


If you think Wi-Fi is a rather nifty way of hooking up to the Internet when you are on your travels, just wait until you log on using 3G mobile broadband! It is the future and once you’ve tried it you won’t want to go back to Wi-Fi, with its range limitations and all the faffing around, hunting down and logging on to hotspots.


3G mobile broadband can be very quick indeed, HSPDA download speeds can theoretically up to 14.4Mbits/sec, though in the UK speeds of 1.8, 3.6 and occasionally 7.2Mbits/sec are far more likely. However, the real point is that it is genuinely mobile and I still get a kick out of logging on to the Internet and watching streamed video or listening to an Internet radio station whilst on a moving train, or in a car.


Well, that’s the rosy view, and also the one you’ll get from those selling the technology. The reality, however, can be quite different. The service is still being rolled out and outside of large towns and cities and transport corridors coverage can be very patchy, or non-existent. If you are not careful it can be quite expensive, and don’t even think of using it abroad unless someone else is picking up the bill, though we’ll come to ways of cutting the cost of overseas roaming later on.


3G technology involves a lot of acronyms but all you really need to know is that a connection to the Internet is through the 3G mobile phone network and to achieve that you will need a widget called a 3G mobile modem or ’dongle’, or have a laptop with a 3G modem built in and from next year this will become an increasingly common feature.


You can also connect a PC to some 3G mobile phones and connect to the phone network that way but this is still a comparatively rare option and in some cases quite difficult to set up, so we’ll stick to the more straightforward dongle method.


A typical 3G dongle looks a bit like an oversize USB memory stick and it’s basically a 3G mobile phone, but without the display, keypad, speaker, microphone, battery and all of the other gubbins. The only familiar feature is the SIM card, which fits inside, though it has to be a 3G ‘data-enabled’ type, ordinary ‘2G’ GSM mobile phone SIMs don’t usually work. The only other features of note are a USB plug or socket, and a LED status indicator, and that’s about it.


Most 3G dongles, bought as part of a mobile broadband package, are ready to run straight out of the box on Windows PCs. They usually carry their own drivers and utility software on an internal flash memory, so all you have to do is plug it in to one of your laptop’s USB ports, wait a few moments for it to be recognised and install the drivers and control panel or ‘dashboard’ program. Many dongles will run on Linux PCs as the driver and control software is included in recent distributions; Apple MACs are usually no problem either, though you may have to load the software from an installation disc supplied with some dongles.


You only have to do this once, thereafter all you have to do plug in your dongle, wait for it to power up, open the dashboard or control utility, make sure the signal strength is okay and the network name is displayed, then click the Connect button. After a few seconds you’ll be online and you can surf the web and receive emails as normal – see part 2 for information about sending emails.


Of course there’s nothing to stop you going it alone and buying your 3G dongle and a data-enabled SIM card separately – see also this week’s Top Tip. Most dongles are ‘locked’ to a network but like mobile phones, they can usually be ‘unlocked’ by websites and mobile phone dealers, so they work on any network. You can make some serious savings too, especially on overseas roaming. Some very recent dongles can be tricky or costly to unlock so check with the manufacturer or vendor before you part with your money. The Huawei E220, used by many UK mobile broadband providers, is a popular choice as it is relatively cheap -- prices start at under £40 – and easily unlocked.


With an unlocked dongle you can switch networks and search out the best tariffs. For occasional users and travellers there are some very good pay-as-you-go (PAYG) deals. For example, data-enabled SIM cards for the Three network cost from around £10, and a Three PAYG £10 Top-Up buys you 1Gb worth of data (it has to be used within 30 days). That may not sound much to a serious music or video downloader but it’s enough to view tens of thousands of web pages, and download over 100,000 emails!


The cost of 3G mobile data rises exponentially if you take your dongle abroad and connect through a UK based service provider. However, with an unlocked dongle you are free to buy a PAYG SIM and data bundle at your destination. Prices and coverage varies widely so you should do some homework before you go. Many overseas mobile phone company websites have English versions, or someone you can contact for advice. It’s difficult to generalise but in mainland Europe, where 3G services are available, prices are broadly similar to the UK.


Next Week – Make do and Mend





Control panel for 3G mobile broadband connections



High-Speed Download Packet Access – data communications protocol used on over 100 3G mobile phone networks in more than 55 countries



Subscriber Identity Module – tiny data card carrying the user’s phone number and personal data, used by all GSM and 3G mobile phones




Manually installing an unlocked 3G dongle only takes a minute or two. It’s a good idea to use generic dashboard software, downloaded from the dongle manufacturer’s website as this will usually allow you to set up several ‘profiles’ for different networks. Once it has been installed you have to enter the network name, the network dialling code (normally something like #99*), and the Access Point Name or APN, which looks like a web address and usually contains the service provider’s name (e.g.,, etc.).



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