Mobile broadband reviewed in PC Pro

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.

4 Responses to Mobile broadband reviewed in PC Pro

  1. Steve July 6, 2008 at 2:54 pm #

    Thanks for the comment.
    At £5 a month that MUST be the best value 3G mobile broadband on the market today. And, contrary to what some people think, it seems 3 work well. At least based on my [very] limited survey of just one mate, who lives in West London.
    Interesting news about T-Mobile ramping up the speed, as this company has many competitive deals.
    I’ve still not bought one yet though. I have Wi-Fi access where I work and at home. When I am not there, I use a McDonalds offering free Wi-Fi next to the station where I normally wait for my [delayed] South West Trains train.
    It’s not ideal (I’ve developed a dislike for McDonalds coffee), but this gives me access most of the time I need it.
    When will South West Trains offer proper wireless access?

  2. Mobile Broadband Blog July 6, 2008 at 2:20 pm #

    You’re right that Vodafone has the fastest network at the moment, but the other networks are playing catch up fast. T-Mobile has just rolled out fast upload speeds (HSUPA) nationally and Orange are spending millions on upgrading their 3G data services.
    I live in Central London and have a 3 dongle with a 1Gb monthly limit for £5 as I’m already a 3 customer. I hardly use the service but at this price I’m grateful to have the option to have broadband whenever/ wherever I need it.
    £4 a day seems rather expensive in comparison.

  3. peter July 21, 2008 at 9:11 am #

    Mobile Broadband is available through a USB Modem or data card that just plugs in to your computer/laptop, Broadband speeds will be available between 1.4Mb/s and 7.2Mb/s but only under ideal conditions and the faster speeds will mainly be concentrated within London to begin with.

  4. sayen January 27, 2009 at 10:49 am #

    Slightly different findings to PC Pro’s comparison in February.