Sierra Wireless AirCard 880 GPRS/EDGE/UMTS/HSPA PC Card

The AirCard 880 PC Card is one of the latest in the Sierra Wireless line of mobile data communication products. I got mine as an OEM branded product from Swisscom, what they call their "Unlimited PC Card".

The AirCard 880 PC Card is one of the latest in the Sierra Wireless line of mobile data communication products. I got mine as an OEM branded product from Swisscom, what they call their "Unlimited PC Card". I have been using these cards from Swisscom for a number of years (since they were first introduced) and it is interesting to see how they have progressed:

- GSM/GPRS/UMTS/WLAN (OEM Option GlobeTrotter card)

- GPRS/EDGE/UMTS/HSDPA/WLAN (OEM Option GlobeTrotter Fusion)

- GPRS/EDGE/UMTS/HSDPA/HSUPA (OEM Sierra Wireless 880)

The addition of protocols mirrors the expansion and upgrading of the Swisscom cellular network, with the most recent improvement being the limited availability of HSUPA service in large cities. On the other hand, the removal of WLAN (WiFi) from the adapter reflects the fact that the vast majority of laptop computers today have integrated WiFi support.

Sierra Wireless also makes Express Card and USB adapters equivalent to the PC Card that I got, which are also offered as OEM products from Swisscom and various other mobile companies in Europe, and an embedded module which is used in the Fujitsu-Siemens Lifebook S6410.

Although Sierra Wireless makes application software for the card, Swisscom provides their own Unlimited Data Manager software. That was good for me, because Swisscom has done a good job over the past few years of merging the software for their various cards, from various manufacturers, and for both Windows XP and Vista, so that now there is only a single version of the software. Because I have kept my laptop up to date with the latest releases, I didn't even have to uninstall/reinstall or otherwise update the software for the new card, I simply plugged the card in, XP loaded the drivers for it, and it was ready to go! Very nice.

Another positive aspect of the Swisscom Unlimited Data Manager software is the "seamless handover", not only between different cellular connections but also to a Swisscom WiFi connection when one is available. I use the card when traveling on the train quite a lot, and it's nice to watch the status change between EDGE, UMTS and HSDPA as we roll across the country, and even to WLAN when we are in some of the large train stations, all without ever losing the connection.

Sierra Wireless says that one of the advantages of the AirCard 880 is faster connection setup, and I can certainly vouch for that. The new card typically gets connected and is ready to use in less than a minute, while the older card often spent several minutes or more thrashing about, displaying "Searching for signal..." and "Working..." before it finally connected.

The nominal maximum data rate of the Sierra Wireless card is 7.2 Mbps. Of course, the actual data rate is going to depend on the kind of connection available. Swisscom has HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access) available in most of the country now (except for the tiny village where I live...), and is just starting to roll out HSUPA (High Speed Uplink Packet Access) in the large cities. The tests and usage I am describing here were all made with HSDPA connections. Based on tests from a couple of the major VoIP speed test web sites, I generally get about 2.0 Mbps downlink speed, and 1.0 Mbps uplink speed, both of which are slightly faster than I was getting with my previous card. More importantly, the Sierra Wireless card gets a better Quality of Service rating from the speed test sites, which is very important if you want to use the connection for VoIP applications. As I mentioned some time ago, I was never able to make usable audio call with the previous Unlimited Data card, the call was always badly distorted or extremely choppy, or both. With this new card I am able to make voice calls with no problem at all.

As David Meyer mentioned in his blog recently, it is very important to make sure you are on the right mobile tariff. This is particularly true of mobile data contracts. The basic data contracts generally include little or no actual use of the card, and have quite high per-megabyte costs. Deciding between volume-based and time-based contracts can be tricky, so you need to think carefully about not only how much you expect to use the card, but how often. Another thing that you need to watch out for is roaming data rates - they can be astronomical! Swisscom charges 1.00-2.50 CHF/Mb for data beyond whatever your contract includes, within Switzerland. But roaming data (outside Switzerland) costs 14.00/Mb!!!! This can be brought back to a rational charge by adding the "World Data Option", which costs CHF 5.00 per month and reduces the roaming data to CHF 3.00/Mb.

In summary, I am quite pleased with this Sierra Wireless (Swisscom Unlimited Data) card. The connection is fast and reliable, coverage is continually being improved - I seldom see that I have an EDGE connection any more, and more often than not I get HSDPA. I'm looking forward to the first time I see an HSUPA connection. For ordinary web surfing and email it is more than adequate, and I'll be using it more often for SightSpeed voice calls now that the quality is acceptable. It has quad-band GPRS/EDGE and tri-band UMTS/HSPA support. I've used it all over Europe, and consistently gotten UMTS or HSDPA connections, and although I've only ever gotten EDGE connections in the U.S., I've been told that there are areas where UMTS/HSDPA are available, and that should also be increasing.

jw 22/1/2008