Thursday, September 04, 2008

The 3 HSDPA Dongle Review

I've just dropped the HSDPA dongle I've had on loan into a prepaid envelope to return the hardware to 3, so I thought I'd better write up my experiences with it now while it's still on my mind...

After some initial teething troubles I got the dongle working under OSX on my Intel Macbook, and gave it a fairly thorough work out over the course of the last couple of months.

As can be seen from their rollout map, 3 doesn't yet have any HSDPA coverage down here in the South West. Locally then, I'm suffering under the same sorts of problems I had with 3's Skypephone. The places where there isn't any 3 coverage is rather long; my house, my office, the cities and towns I visit regularly. The list of places where there is coverage is considerably shorter, and that's bad. What this also implies is that the problems seen with HSDPA when on the fringes of coverage are perhaps more significant than you might think.

However, whether a wireless modem works when you're in your own living room isn't, perhaps, as relevant as how well it works when it isn't. I used it extensively when I was out in Italy for the Trieste meeting roaming onto the 3 network there, and if I hadn't had the dongle on loan, I'd have only have been paying UK rates to do so...

I've also made use of it on various trips up and down the country, while stuck in hotel rooms, on trains and in coffee shops. I found it to be a good backup if wireless wasn't available. That said, performance was noticeably more sluggish than wireless, and if wireless access was available I generally still ended up paying for that rather than using the dongle.

Because somewhat unfortunately I found the process of using the dongle klunky and inconvenient. Coverage wasn't always there, and when it was there it wasn't there automatically. If I wanted to make use of it I had to dig the dongle out of my bag, plug it in, wait for it to find the 3 network, then wait for it to connect, wait for authorization. A lot of waiting...

I think I would have found the process a lot less inconvenient if HSPDA was built-in to my laptop, and like WiFi, automatically connected to a network when one was present. I'd like my data connection to seamlessly switching between wired, Wi-Fi and HSDPA when needed, without having to do do any fiddling around. Which I why I found the Dell and Vodafone announcement earlier today so interesting. You have to wonder how well integrated Vodafone's HSDPA card and Dell's mini 9 are going to be?

Three blew the roof off the mobile data market late last year when then started offering flat rate mobile broadband. Except of course it's not unlimited, their biggest plan has a data allowance of 15GB a month for £30. Which by mobile network standards is pretty good going. But despite the fact I wasn't paying for the bandwidth I found myself obsessively checking how much of the data allowance I was using, and the days where that's acceptable to me are long gone...

So the question I'm asking myself is "what's it for"? With a 15GB per month allowance this would never replace my home ADSL connection, I'd blow through that within the first week. So this is strictly for when you're out of the house, and the office, traveling. Perhaps this isn't normal, but most of the traveling I do is to the US. I don't spend much time in Europe, and less time than that traveling around the UK. Which means that I'd be paying £3 per MB when roaming, which clearly is just totally unacceptable.

So perhaps what I'm really saying here is that for me, this isn't the solution. Even when in Europe, and paying 10 pence per MB rather than £3 per MB, it isn't really good enough. However if you do most of your traveling in the UK, or within the coverage of a 3 sister network, perhaps you should take a look. It could be well worth your while.

As always then, your mileage may vary...