The great 3G data card road test

ZDNet UK took 3G data cards from four service providers on a day trip to Microsoft's Reading Campus and back in the world's first real-life 3G group test
Written by ZDNet UK, Contributor

Third-generation mobile technology has great potential to speed up mobile connectivity for consumers and businesses. That's just as well -- having doled out some £22.5bn in licence costs in the UK alone the service providers need to see some money back, and soon.

Out of the five 3G operators, only Hutchison-owned 3 initially targeted consumers -- the company offers videophones and a selection of other services, but no data access.

The other operators have taken a different path. In the past six months, Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile and O2 have all launched 3G/GPRS data cards for the mobile businessperson -- the semi-mythical road warrior. The data cards and their associated services aim to provide a broadband wireless link to company network or Internet services: in other words, make your mobile laptop a near-equivalent to one back at base.

The four operators make some pretty bold claims for their technology. "With our wireless data cards, you can do all your usual PC things on the road as fast and as easily as you do in the office," says Vodafone. "O2 Connection Manager… will give business customers the most cost-effective, high-speed mobile data access where and when they want it," says O2.

Over the past few months we've had the chance to test and review all four offerings. We've been generally impressed, but there have been enough problems with all of them to make us wonder if 3G is really ready for commercial deployment.

So in the world's first group 3G road test a team from ZDNet UK set out to discover which card coped best out in the real-world of hills, valleys and high-rise urban landscapes.

We recreated many of the scenarios a typical 3G user on the road will encounter by driving from London to Reading by car, then returning by train.

Beginning at ZDNet HQ next to London's Tower Bridge, we drove north and west out of the City, joining the M4 at its start in Chiswick. We then headed along the motorway to the first services outside the city at Heston, onward to Reading -- the throbbing centre of the UK's high-tech corridor -- taking the opportunity to check the connectivity around Microsoft's UK HQ campus.

Reading was also a good spot to check how the cards coped with Wi-Fi. Each of the networks have access arrangements with thousands of Wi-Fi hot spots.

The kit:
One Vodafone Mobile Connect 3G/GPRS data card
Vodafone's Mobile Connect 3G/GPRS data card was the first to be commercially available in the UK. The Qualcomm card used by Vodafone is uniquely equipped with a detachable aerial that can be sited separately from the card if needed to give improved reception.
One Orange 3G Mobile Office Card
Orange was second out of the gates with its 3G data card -- the Novatel Merlin U530, which is the same hardware used by O2 and T-Mobile. Orange estimates that around 62 percent of small businesses and 72 percent of medium-to-large business are covered by its network, and the company’s target for 2005 is to raise its 3G coverage to around 90 percent of businesses.
One T-Mobile 3G Communication Centre data card
T-Mobile was the third UK network operator to release a 3G data card, and the first to offer a flat-rate tariff and bundled connectivity to its network of Wi-Fi hot spots.
One O2 Data Card 3G/GPRS.
O2's cautious 3G rollout has kicked off with coverage earmarked for just '20 major cities and towns' this year, although the company is 'working hard' to provide coverage to 80 percent of the UK population by the end of 2007.
Four Toshiba Portege A100 laptop computers.
Toshiba's distinctly iBook-like Portégé A100 are light sub-notebooks based on Intel's Centrino chipset. They are relatively lightweight, offer decent battery life and have 802.11 Wi-Fi networking built in.
Renault Megane Scenic
One Renault Megane Scenic, and four ZDNet UK editors...

Scenario 1: Driving through central London.
3G coverage may be limited in the rest of the country but driving through the capital should be a good opportunity to see it at its best.

This card picked up a 3G signal through the London traffic, and managed to retain it, with intermittent outages when it switched to GPRS. On 3G it offered a connection speed of 160Kbps. By the A4 it was on GPRS, sometimes in excess of 50Kbps.

One problem with the T-Mobile card was its inability to establish a VPN connection, with neither IPSec nor SSL VPNs working at all. Both were fine over Wi-Fi, even when using the T-Mobile client software, but as soon as we switched to GPRS or 3G our VPN servers didn't want to know us.

Due to circumstances beyond our control and unlike the other cards which were already installed and running on the test machines, we had to install Orange's offering in the car shortly after leaving. But despite assurances that the device and accompanying software were easy to set up, things proved otherwise. This is unlikely to be a hardware issue as Orange uses the same Novatel U530 UMTS card as O2 and T-Mobile. We found we could ping remote computers, so there was obviously a network connection, but no browser or IM client could find the Internet. Having tried everything to get the card working in transit, we decided a more thorough attempt would have to wait until the next service station.

Just before conducting the test we received a new version of Vodafone's client software which included Wi-Fi support. In the spirit of adventure, we decided to update on the move. The operation proved fiddly as the original software proved reluctant to relinquish control. But after two attempts we'd managed it.

The Vodafone card then maintained a constant connection to the Internet. Occasionally, especially when we passed through built-up areas, it would drop down to GPRS. For example, around Hammersmith the connection-speed suddenly dropped to just 7Kbps, before recovering to 50Kbps, hitting the heights of 106Kbps and settling back around the 100Kbps mark (according to its own client).

As we left London via the M4, the Vodafone card maintained a 3G connection, often as high as five bars on the signal meter.

Even at this early point in the trial, we were warming to O2's client software compared to the others. 3G connectivity was good too, although at one point it appeared to have dropped down to GPRS (shown by a green flashing light), when it then claimed to offer 50Kbps. It was soon back to 3G, offering the theoretical maximum speed.

Scenario 2: The Heston M4 Moto service station, over coffee and muffins.
Action: Downloading a 2.7MB PowerPoint presentation.
3G coverage is limited to major towns and cities. In the rest of the country, the cards drop down to GPRS - which is much less useful for activities such as downloading large files.

As we began the 2.7MB download using the T-Mobile card, the card dropped the connection twice. When it did get going it did so at a sedate 550 bytes per second. The problem was that although the card and the software agreed that we had a 3G connection, as soon as we began the download they revised their mutual opinion and decided that it was really just a GPRS connection after all. The full 2.7MB file would have taken 46 minutes to download had we waited, even after the card shifted up a gear part-way through to 2.5Kbps a second.

Vodafone appeared to be the only one of the three cards still providing a 3G connection as we rolled into the service station. It certainly coped well with the download -- finishing the task in 1min 17 seconds. During this time the client software registered three bars on the signal reader -- poorer than in the heart of London, but still clearly up to the task

To test whether the laptop, rather than the card was at fault, we loaded the Orange software onto an identical Toshiba laptop. However the card caused exactly the same problems as it had on the previous Toshiba; the software said it was connected, but no applications - browsers and IM alike - wanted to know.

The problem, as it turned out, was with the driver. Like the T-Mobile installation, O2 uses the hardware discovery wizard in Windows to find and install the driver (supplied on the accompanying CD-Rom). Like the T-Mobile installation, this is flaky at best. Luckily we had the Orange CD-Rom with us, and a bit of exploration through the directories turned up a self-installing driver file, which cured the problem when we ran it.

The lesson here is don't lose your installation CD-Rom; the last time we looked, Novatel did not offer drivers for download, and neither did the telcos.

Once up and running, the Orange card claimed to be connected to 3G, but actually only tackled the download at GPRS speeds. We terminated the attempt after it became clear it would take around 58 minutes to complete -- a figure that indicated there were times when no data transfer was taking place at all.


The O2 card had also given up giving us 3G by the time we reached the services. Even for GPRS its connection speed was poor, often around the 4Kbps mark. We began the download, and stopped it once it was clear it would take 13 minutes.

Scenario 3: Microsoft Campus, just outside Reading.
Video is one of 3G's big selling points, so we decided to stream a video. One of Steve Ballmer seemed appropriate. (You can see the file for yourself here).

Using Windows Media Player at 220Kbps, we were able to enjoy full-motion video of Steve Ballmer talking about Linux. A couple of frames dropped and the player did occasionally stall, but the video was eminently watchable. The audio quality was faultless.

The video downloaded with no problems in the same kind of time you'd experience over a corporate wired broadband connection -- with little or no disruption.

This was the point where the Vodafone card, which had been performing very well, lost some ground. It failed to get the video working, and the card became stuck on a constant green light -- rather than a flashing light showing a healthy connection.

The O2 card also struggled with this test. The laptop speakers broadcast a regular buzzing noise -- and long experience with the Vodafone card has taught us that this indicated the card is struggling. All we got were occasional repeated snatches of Ballmer saying "OK one more time". The O2 software showed that we were getting occasional bursts of throughput, but no consistent connection.

Scenario 4: The College Arms, Wokingham Road, Reading
Mobile working is demanding, so road warriors need to be able to keep connected at their pit stops.

We tried the Wi-Fi connection in the pub. Although the software said it was connected, the browser didn't want to know, so we turned our attention to the Cajun chicken and pint of Kronenburg.

No connection was possible. More Kronenburg.

The Vodafone card fluctuated between 3G and GPRS, which proved ample for some Web browsing and IM conversations with the troops back at base camp.

We also used the updated Vodafone software to look for Wi-Fi hot spots in Reading. It found five -- but unfortunately not the pub in question. Vodafone's hot-spot directory doesn't provide a map of each site, just the address. So users in an unfamiliar town would have to get their 3G or GPRS running in order to use an Internet map service and locate a hot spot. [Unless they had planned ahead and taken an old-fashioned map with them, of course. - Ed]

O2's deal with The Cloud meant that we could get onto a fast connection, although we didn't manage it the first time. To authenticate to the hot spot we needed to answer an automatically placed call on the mobile registered to the account. Unfortunately the level of background noise in the pub meant that we couldn't hear the instructions given by the machine on the other end the first time it called. Second time, with the mobile's volume up full and a finger in the other ear, we had more luck. But we couldn't get a VPN connection running.

Scenario 5: On the train from Reading to London Paddington
This was the point when the limitations of 3G became obvious…

T-Mobile said it had a 3G connection as the train stood in the station, but this quickly dropped to GPRS as we pulled out before disappearing altogether.

The Orange card refused to give a connection for the first half of the journey, but perked up at Slough with a 31Kbps link. It wouldn't say whether we were on 3G or GPRS, but was soon reduced to staggering along at just 700 bytes per second.

3G as we got on, but very quickly the client software admitted it was "acquiring" a network connection. Once it jumped back to 3G we enjoyed a surge of bandwidth, over 100Kbps, but the connection stopped as we tried the download from Scenario 2 again. It stuck on a miserly 6Kbps for many minutes, before suddenly climbing back to 80 to 100Kbps. The full download took 11 minutes.

Attempts to get a VPN running were fruitless -- suggesting the connection was so slow that the initial handshakes timed out. Instant messenging worked fine most of the way.

Refused to get 3G/GPRS, then offered it but failed to connect.

Occasionally the software would alert us that we were in range of a Wi-Fi hot spot accessible through our subscription. But we never managed to get a connection -- doubtless because by the time we'd clicked connect the access point was a couple of miles back down the track.

Scenario 6: Paddington Station
The number of pastry shops at Paddington station is surpassed only by the number of Wi-Fi hot spots...

Offers in its 3G data card package access to its network of Wi-Fi hotspots, which now number almost a thousand including all the main London stations. The software discovered and connected to the Paddington Wi-Fi hotspot without incident.

Also offers Wi-Fi access, in the shape of an account for BT Openzone hot spots, though you do need an O2 handset for authentication and billing. The O2 software pulled a trick that we recognised from our earlier review of the T-Mobile software, and refused to acknowledge that the Toshiba had Wi-Fi. After uninstalling the Wi-Fi driver, and letting the hardware wizard in the control panel reinstall it we persuaded the O2 card that the Tosh really did have Wi-Fi, and we were then able to discover the hot spots.

The client software detected the presence of an "unsupported hot spot" -- i.e. one where access is not possible through a Vodafone subscription. We had no trouble connecting to the hot spot directly -- indicating Vodafone's client software doesn't interfere with a laptop's other connectivity tools.

No connection.

Conclusion - and the winner is...

3G data card providers promise true mobility -- allowing users to break away from the office and be productive almost anywhere. Our tests show that the current products and services aren't there yet.

Things should improve over the next few years as 3G network rollouts continue -- especially near major routes like the M4 corridor and the train lines into London. Manufacturers and developers must also improve products and services to avoid the kind of technical glitches we experienced with Orange's software -- but all 3G data services currently have something of the first generation about them.

Is 3G a must-have for today's laptop user? Not yet. It's surprisingly close if you fit certain profiles of work and location. For example, ZDNet UK's editors and writers use 3G cards on a regular basis with varying degrees of success mirrored by the experiences in this road test. At the moment, the cards are probably only worth investing in if you work within a major city and travel by car; even then you will still probably need Wi-Fi.

In choosing an overall winner, some factors are similar between all operators. For example, there is not a great deal of difference between tariffs (which you can check using the links in the table below). At the time of the road test, T-Mobile still operated a relatively slow connection, though this is due to be upgraded and is made up for in some respects by the bundled Wi-Fi deal, which Orange and O2 are also adding. But after extensive use, we have some reservations about the Novatel Merlin U530 card used by T-Mobile, O2 and Orange. Although it works most of the time, it can be unpredictable -- our advice, if you do buy one, is to use the self-extracting driver that should ship with it instead of letting Windows run the installation automatically.

So, after a full day's road test, separate reviews which you can read below, and further ad hoc usage, Vodafone stands out as the best overall. It didn't claim the fastest speeds in Central London and couldn’t cope with the video download in Reading, but over the course of the day it proved to have the most consistent service and user friendly interface. Reliability counts for a lot when you're on the road. The Vodafone service is also alone in providing support for Apple machines. Given our experience, we've decided to give the ZDNet UK Editors' Choice Award to the Vodafone package.

3G datacard solutions





3G data solution
Standalone Reviews: O2 Data Card 3G/GPRS Orange 3G Mobile Office Card T-Mobile 3G Communication Centre Vodafone Mobile Connect 3G/GPRS datacard
3G coverage
Check here Check here Check here Check here
Key features
Protocols supported 3G, GPRS, SMS 3G, GPRS, SMS 3G, GPRS, SMS 3G, GPRS, SMS
Software O2 Connection Manager Mobile Office Card dashboard T-Mobile 3G Communication Centre Vodafone Dashboard
Wi-Fi hot-spot access yes (O2 handset account required) by end of 2004 yes yes
Mac support no no no yes
384Kbps throughput yes yes Q4 2004 yes
Check here Check here Check here Check here

Editorial standards