Mobile Broadband on Linux, Revisited

It has been nearly a year since I last wrote about using Mobile Broadband on Linux. I have recently acquired a new Huawei USB dongle, so I think it is time to revisit the subject.

It has been nearly a year since I last wrote about using Mobile Broadband on Linux. I have recently acquired a new Huawei USB dongle, so I think it is time to revisit the subject. My objective in buying it was to simplify and standardize the Mobile Broadband access on my variety of laptop/notebook/netbook systems. Until now I have had a PC Card adapter which "should work" in my Fujitsu Lifebook S6510 and S2110, an Express Card adapter which does work in my HP 2133 and ASUS N10J, and an HP dv2-1010ez which doesn't have either type of slot, so I had no Mobile Broadband access for it.

As with my previous Sierra Wireless AirCard 880 (PC Card/PCMCIA) and Option GE201 Globe Trotter Express (Express Card), the Huawei is a Swisscom OEM unit. The packaging is rather nice, with a retractable USB plug so that it can be reasonably protected when not in use. It comes with Swisscom Universal Data Manager software for Windows XP/Vista/Win7, but nary a mention of Linux compatibility. Harrumph.

I decided to try the Huawei USB dongle with Windows XP in my S6510 first, just to verify functionality. That involved downloading and installing the 33 MB(!) UDM software, and then waiting while Windows thrashed about with a seemingly endless series of "Found New Hardware" messages. After a total of about half an hour, it was installed and working. Suffering through that one time, on one Windows system, was more than enough for me. Then I got to do the much more interesting exploration with various Linux distributions.

In case you don't feel like slogging through my long-winded detailed description, the "executive summary" is this: If you are running a current Linux distribution with the Gnome desktop and the latest Network Manager (0.7.996), you should be able to use the Huawei USB dongle by simply plugging it in and waiting about 15 seconds for it to be recognized. That's it. No Megabytes of additional software to install, no endless thrashing about, total time elapsed about one minute rather than half an hour with Windows. Linux distributions in this category that I have tested include Fedora 12, Ubuntu 9.10 (including the Netbook Remix and Xubuntu), and Linux Mint. I believe that the Gnome distributions of openSuSE and Mandriva would work equally as well, but I only have the KDE versions of those distributions loaded right now, so I couldn't test it. I did not have any luck with the KDE distributions I tried - Kubuntu 9.10, openSuSE 11.2 and Mandriva 2010.0. Read on for details:

- Fedora, Ubuntu, Linux Mint: Plug in the Huawei USB dongle, and wait for about 15 seconds. Click the Network Manager icon in the Panel notification area, and you will see a new category for "Mobile Broadband", and a new selection below that which says "New Mobile Broadband Connection". Click that, and select your country and mobile carrier. You're done. The Broadband connection comes up, and you're ready to go. You can then connect and disconnect at will through the Network Manager icon.

- openSuSE 11.2: When I plugged in the Huawei dongle, the Network icon changed to something that looks like a mobile phone, so it was obviously recognized. But I had no luck getting it configured and connected, and I couldn't figure out why it failed. Bummer. The good news, though, is that openSuSE includes the wvdial utility in the base distribution, so I was able to configure that (instructions here), and it connected just fine. There seems to be some problem between wvdial and the network management program, which causes the DNS information not to be updated automatically on connect, but it does print the correct information when it connects, so I could add that manually to /etc/resolv.conf, and everything then worked fine. I hope this will all get straightened out soon...

- Mandriva One 2010.0: After I plugged in the Huawei USB dongle, a new category for "GPRS/Edge/3G" connection showed up in the Network window. However, when I tried to configure it, the "software download" window popped up, so it obviously wanted to get some additional packages. I don't have another internet connection here, so I will have to wait until later to continue this testing at another location.

- Moblin 2.1: No reaction when I plugged in the Huawei USB dongle. Nothing new or different in the Network area, and the "3G" item still shows "Unavailable". Does anything actually work on Moblin?

- SimplyMEPIS 8.5 (Beta 3): Reacted the same as openSuSE, but MEPIS does not include wvdial by default, so I will have to wait until I can install that package to continue testing.

I continued to test on Fedora, Ubuntu and Linux Mint. The speed is obviously going to vary depending on your carrier and connection. With Swisscom and an HSPA connection, the performance was absolutely amazing. Using the Speakeasy Speed Test page, I consistently got over 4 Mb/sec download and over 550 Kb/sec upload. The MySpeed VoIP test reports that the quality of the connection is good enough for VoIP use, and the speeds are certainly sufficient for video chat use.

I tested the Huawei USB dongle in all of my laptop/netbook systems, and it worked as noted above in every one of them. Hooray! So my original goal has been met, and I can stop dragging around two or three different Mobile Broadband adapters.

jw 29/12/2009

P.S. I mentioned at the beginning that the Sierra Wireless AirCard 880 "should work" in the Lifebook notebooks. There is some sort of problem with Network Manager at the moment. It recognizes the card correctly, and the country and carrier selection works as it should. But when I try to connect, it crashes with a segmentation fault. There is an ongoing discussion in both the Ubuntu and Network Manager forums concerning this, and a solution should be available soon. This apparently doesn't happen with the AT&T "branded" version of the AirCard, but it does with others, including my Swisscom card. I was, however, able to use it with wvdial with no trouble.