- Easy to set up and use
- capable of good throughput (up to 384Kbps)
- 3G coverage is currently restricted to major population centres
Vodafone's Mobile Connect 3G/GPRS datacard is the first product in the UK to provide a fast mobile data service via a third-generation (3G) network. It consists of a Type II PC Card with a SIM slot, installation software on a CD, and a detachable aerial that plugs into the card to give improved reception.This, Vodafone says, is all you need to get broadband access on the move. Our experience is that 3G can live up to the hype and give mobile workers a genuine alternative to Wi-Fi hot spots. But 3G coverage is currently limited, prices are high and we also encountered some performance problems. Two flavours of Mobile Connect are available: an Internet Access version that provides unrestricted access to the Web, POP3 and IMAP email, instant messaging and text messaging; and a Remote Access version that provides a Virtual Private Network (VPN) link to a company's local area network. We have tested the Internet Access version, which also supports VPNs, allowing access to Web-based corporate email.
Installation and operation
The Internet Access service is straightforward to set up, and it takes less than ten minutes to run the installation CD. Vodafone includes an updated version of the Dashboard application that it introduced for its GPRS-based Mobile Connect Card last year. This program is your 3G control panel, from where you can fire up a Web browser or IM client, compose and read text messages, check the speed of your connection, and monitor how much data you have downloaded.
Vodafone’s 3G data service supports a maximum download speed of 384 kilobits per second (Kbps), or 48KB of data per second. In our testing, we regularly achieved speeds of around 264Kbps (33KB/s, or around 2MB a minute), with top speeds of 360Kbps (45KB/s) at some points. Performance was slightly better with the aerial plugged into the card. When accessing Windows Update, the connection consistently hit between 80 and 100 percent of the card's maximum throughput, according to the networking component of Windows Task Manager. At these speeds, 3G can be extremely useful for quickly downloading a large presentation, a batch of emails, or an important security patch. The caveat, though, is that 3G -- like DSL -- is a contended service, so bandwidth is shared between the various 3G users in each cell. As this product only launched in April, there are unlikely to have been many other 3G users nearby during our testing. It will be a few months before it becomes clear how well Vodafone’s 3G network copes with large numbers of people hitting it simultaneously. On occasion, though, the connection was painfully slow. This was usually the case when surfing at the edge of Vodafone’s 3G network. At present, this covers only 30 percent of the population, and is concentrated on major cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester. Elsewhere, the connection falls back to GPRS, which is almost ubiquitous but has a maximum speed of only 57Kbps. Our testing took place in and around London. On a coach journey starting beyond the M25, the card stuck to GPRS until reaching some 13 miles from central London, when 3G kicked in. Signal strength here was weak, though, which was reflected in relatively slow connection speeds. 3G wasn’t always available in the centre of London. Bizarrely, at one desk in ZDNet UK's office we could only get GPRS, while another one a few metres away basked in 3G glory. Kensington Olympia -- one of the capital's major exhibition venues -- was 3G-free one day during the test period, but boasted 3G coverage the next. Switching between 3G and GPRS was sometimes seamless, but on other occasions would result in dropped instant messaging traffic. At its worst, browsing would also temporarily break down. During the first few days of testing we also found that Web browsing occasionally wasn’t possible, even though the rest of the service appeared to be functioning. Reconnecting often solved the problem, suggesting that the fault lay with some of the IP addresses that Vodafone dynamically allocates each time a user logs on. Because services like instant messaging still worked when Web access didn’t, and because it was possible to telnet to Web sites on ports other than port 80 (which is used for HTTP traffic), it’s possible that a glitch with a transparent proxy was to blame. Vodafone’s technical support team suggested that a fault on part of its 3G network -- now fixed -- may have been responsible. In any event, the problem had disappeared by the end of the testing period.
Value for money
Vodafone offers a range of tariffs for its 3G data service, all providing a certain amount of data per month for a fixed cost. The 'Low user' tariff gives 5MB of traffic for £10 per month, with each additional megabyte costing £2 more; the card itself costs £150 if you select this tariff. At the top end, a 'Power user' pays £85 a month for 500MB, with extra data costing 50p per megabyte and the card price dropping to £50. Prices are excluding VAT. Our experience is that 3G users will very quickly notch up several megabytes of traffic each time they spend some time online. This is partly because Vodafone is counting both upstream and downstream traffic. During testing we would regularly be startled to find that we had run up five or six megabytes just by Web surfing and running several instant messaging conversations. The volume of sent data was typically one fifth of the volume of data received. Running applications, such as IM and VPNs that regularly ‘check in’ with a central server could be an expensive hobby for 3G users. And as for song-swapping services like KaZaa… After spending some £6 billion on its 3G licence in the government auction of 2000, Vodafone must be under pressure to recoup its investment. But it’s hard to believe that prices this high will encourage significant 3G take-up. One major advantage of the Mobile Connect 3G/GPRS datacard, though, is that it can supersede almost all other connectivity methods. Companies that equip their mobile staff with this device should never have to see another dog-eared receipt for time spent at an Internet café or a Wi-Fi hot spot. IT managers who are struggling to keep control of their remote access costs will appreciate this.