This month's PC Pro magazine (available in the UK, August 2008 issue) reviews the mobile broadband offerings from UK operators – 3, Orange, 02, T-Mobile and Vodafone. The article compares the services on price, ease of use, speed etc. It's certainly the most comprehensive review that I've read to date.
I was particularly interested to see how the five networks performed outside London, where mobile broadband coverage can be patchy at best. Part of the tests involved a reviewer using each of the services on a train commute from Sussex to London.
I commute by train from Surrey to Southampton, but South West Trains appear unable to provide WiFi connectivity which would obviously be ideal.
In the meantime, an ever-growing number of my fellow commuters obtain Net access using various dongles and USB sticks.
Vodafone seems to be the most popular service on my particular route. But coverage must be pretty shaky, particularly in the stretch from Winchester to Eastleigh in Hampshire where deep embankments and hills obstruct mobile reception. It's so bad that you can't even make a voice call at times.
Vodafone also comes top in the the PC Pro tests. This comes as no surprise as most people seem to think it has the best coverage of all the operators. T-Mobile is runner-up in the test, followed, perhaps surprisingly, by the cheapest mobile broadband provider, 3. As for 02 and Orange the least said about their performance the better.
The article warned that unless you are located in select areas of London, you're highly unlikely to get the really fast access speeds. Forget those advertising billboards that promise impressive speeds of "up to 7.2 meg", outside the main cities you may only pick up internet via GPRS - which can be REALLY slow.
More worryingly, PC Pro is reporting that the 3G mobile networks may be unable to cope with demand in the future.
Watch out for those services that attempt to compress image files, apparently it's really annoying. And on a similar theme, the costs of going over your usage limits (out of bundle costs) can be horrific (up to around £4 per MB when abroad).
The good news is that they all boast easy set-up, although Mac users find that they have to do a little more configuring. But software packages vary in quality. If you hope to use broadband service on a train, it can be handy to have software that tells you when you are connecting via HSDPA (i.e. fast Internet) and when are slumming it on GPRS.
Where does it leave me? Still looking. I need a service that A) Works on my train commute – Vodafone seems to be the obvious choice for coverage B) Is affordable. I want a PAYG or a short contract because I won't use it every day or even every month. Perhaps T-Mobile at £4 a day will be best.
I reckon for those outside the big cities, these services are still too expensive for the kind of speed and coverage you are likely to receive.