Internet on the run – Mobile Internet services

Anthony Caruana
22 September, 2007
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Mobile internet services have changed massively over the last year. It wasn’t so long ago that carriers were telling us that GPRS was the new wave and that we could finally get on the net with our mobile phones and laptops. Today, 3G and faster services are the norm and there are so many connectivity options that consumers are now drowning in a sea of confusing options.

Broadly speaking, there are three options to consider. There are mobile phones with internet access, ExpressCard devices suitable for your MacBook Pro, and USB devices that can be used with any Mac. If you’re planning to use your MacBook or MacBook Pro for occasional web access then connecting it to your mobile phone by USB or Bluetooth is OK but it’ll chew through battery life. For regular internet use, look to an ExpressCard or USB solution.

Of all the wireless broadband options we tested there are two that stand out. If you travel into rural areas, Telstra’s NextG offering provides the best coverage without any charges for roaming onto other networks. If you plan on staying in Three’s coverage areas then that carrier’s products offer far and away the best value.

Bigpond Wireless Broadband.
Telstra’s Bigpond ISP has embraced the mobile internet through a number of services. We looked at the NextG Express Mobile Card, but there are also USB and desktop modem options.

The NextG Express Mobile Card is a re-badged Qualcomm 3G CDMA ExpressCard 35. When inserted into the slot on the MacBook Pro it protrudes by about 45mm but doesn’t interfere with normal computer use.

Installation of the Bigpond unit was far and away the most diabolical process we encountered during this round-up. The installation wouldn’t proceed as it complained that we had another active network connection. So, we disabled Bluetooth and AirPort and tried again with the same result. After much digging around, we disabled the virtual network connections created by Parallels and all was well. How a non-technical end-user is meant to resolve this is something of a mystery. The troubleshooting section of the documentation is not helpful.

Once up and running the software automatically created an e-mail account in Mail. There is an option to do this for Entourage as well. The client software provided a signal strength indicator and made it easy to establish and terminate connections.
Testing from a number of locations including trains, suburbs and CBD office blocks revealed that connections were stable and didn’t drop out after several hours of activity.

In the grand Telstra tradition, pricing plans are complex and seemingly designed to make it hard for customers to make a suitable choice. The cheapest plan provides you with ten hours of connectivity at 256kbps download and 128kbps upload for $35. Extra time is charged at $0.80 for each five minutes. The dearest option is $185 for 3GB of traffic at 1.5Mbps download and 384kbps upload. Excess traffic is billed at $0.30 per MB. There are five other options between these ends.

Rather than taking the enhanced mobile phone coverage route, iBurst has built its own proprietary network based on hardware developed by Kyocera and ArrayComm. The network covers Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Perth, Adelaide and the Gold Coast. However, once you drop out of the coverage area there’s no way to roam onto alternate networks.

Mobile users can choose between a PC Card unit that’s suitable for PowerBooks and a USB unit for any mobile Mac. We looked at the USB unit. Made by Kyocera, it’s about 120mm by 52mm by 15mm in size, making it one of the larger units that lays claim to being mobile.

Setting up the hardware was a little confusing. The installation CD had a bunch of different Mac drivers on it and we had to browse the CD’s contents to find one that worked on the MacBook Pro. Once we overcame this we had to create a PPoE connection manually in the Network System Preference. To top it off, when we called iBurst’s support we found out that driver software had been updated some time ago and neither the CD nor the iBurst web site had the most recent software. The web site has since been updated.

After installing the most recent driver we were up and running and able to establish and maintain connectivity. However, we found that other connections stopped working. A chat with iBurst’s support didn’t expose any problems although they were very patient and tried to solve the issues systematically. Eventually, we found that waiting about ten minutes seemed to resolve the issue although why that worked is still a mystery.

The iBurst support team has been working on a supporting software utility that shows connection strength and throughput that should be available by the time you read this. We tried out a beta version and it seemed to work well.

iBurst sells access to its network through a number of third parties. Prices start at about $30 for a 256k download and 64k upload connection with 200MB of peak and 200MB of off-peak traffic. 1MB download and 345k upload connection with 10GB of peak and 10GB of off peak traffic will set you back $200. Excess traffic is charged at $0.12 per MB. The USB modem has an upfront hardware cost of $249.

Vodafone Mobile Connect.
It’s rare that reviewers can carry out truly consistent controlled experiments but Vodafone, Three and Optus provided us with a great opportunity. All use the same model USB HSDPA modem — a Huawei E220. The only difference between the hardware offered is the branding. A plain, white accessory with a single LED, it has a very Apple-like appearance. Vodafone also offers a PC Card product but we didn’t test it.

The Vodafone Mobile Connect service ships with PowerPC software (which produced a warning that it wouldn’t work, then pressed on with a doomed installation regardless) so we needed to make a trip to the Vodafone web site before we got started. Once we installed the software and carried out a reboot we launched the Vodafone Mobile Connect application — a licensed version of Nova Media’s Launch2Net connection configuration client. This created a connection in Internet Connect that we used for initiating and terminating connections.

Connections were stable although we did find that they were noticeably slower than Three’s in our test locations. Based on the coverage maps on the Vodafone and Three web sites, Three has a larger area of HSDPA coverage. Typically, there was a period of noticeable latency with Vodafone’s Mobile Connect when the web browser seemed to do nothing. After a couple of seconds the page would start to load.

Vodafone’s pricing starts at $30 per month for a meagre 100MB of traffic with extra MBs charged at $0.10 each. If you enter a 12- or 24-month contract, the monthly fee drops to $20. You’ll need to hand over $200 for the USB modem at this end of the deal spectrum. For $80 per month you get the modem included along with 2GB of traffic if you’re prepared to enter a 12- or 24-month contract.

Three NetConnect.
Three looks after Mac users with two different products — the Huawei E220 USB modem and a Novatel Merlin XU870 ExpressCard. The ExpressCard works with PowerBooks as it comes with a PC Card adaptor.

Installation is well documented, although Mac users only get rudimentary software support. There’s a modem driver that allows you to create a connection manually in Internet Connect. The documentation is very clear and won’t challenge the average Mac user. No connection monitoring tools for keeping tabs on traffic are provided, so you’ll need to venture into the realms of third party software for these.

Once up and running connections were quickly established and web browsing felt reasonably fast. Connections were stable with very few drop-outs although there were a couple of occasions in our test period where the connection hung. Disconnecting the dead connection, removing the ExpressCard or USB modem and then starting over resolved this. It only seemed to happen after extended periods of connection (in excess of three hours).

Pricing starts at $29 per month for 1GB of traffic with extra MBs rung up at $0.10 each. At $49 per month you can use 2GB, $69 per month traffic is boosted to 3GB and $99 gets you 5GB. The ExpressCard or USB modem can be bought for $399 or $299 respectively or you can pay it off in monthly instalments of between $0 or $20 per month depending on the deal you choose and the contract term.

Optus Wireless Connect.
Huawei’s E220 USB modem makes yet another appearance but, incredibly, Optus doesn’t officially support Mac users. However, we didn’t let that stop us.
Our first port of call was simply to plug the modem in and see if Nova Media’s Launch2Net would get it working.

Launch2Net’s configuration tool found the modem, identified the SIM as being on Optus’s network but couldn’t connect. So, after some searching we found the software we needed — a free download from another telco called myGlobe (see “Hot links”). We downloaded the software and followed the very simple instructions. The only variation was that we used “connect” as the APN instead of the default.

Once connected, we were able to keep a stable connection for several hours to surf the web and retrieve e-mail. In fact, other than the setup issues, the service was comparable to Three and Vodafone.

Optus’s pricing starts at $30 per month for 100MB of data and goes up to $130 for 2GB. In addition, you’ll need another $400 for the modem if you choose to buy it up front although there are also monthly instalment plans if you’re prepared to make a commitment of up to two years.

Unless you’re a switcher from Windows, we can’t recommend the Optus solution as, at this time, it’s unsupported.

Motorola V3xx on Vodafone Live.
The V3xx is another handset in the popular Motorola RAZR line. With HSDPA for comms it’s pushed as one of Vodafone’s premiere phones for the Vodafone Live service.

Streaming was quite smooth and while the occasional dropped frame was noticeable, performance was certainly acceptable.

Pricing is reasonable with the News & Sport Pack costing $8 per month for unlimited viewing. The Music & Entertainment Pack and cost the same and all packages include the first month for free. TV On Demand costs $1 per episode with each lasting between two and three minutes.

LG TU550 on Telstra NextG.
Telstra’s principal advantages in providing mobile entertainment are the spread of its NextG network and access to Foxtel content. The LG TU550 puts this to good use.

As mobiles go the TU550 is quite an unexceptional handset. There’s a 1.3MP camera and media player buttons on the front face.

The real jewel in the crown is the Foxtel content, reformatted so that it’s optimised for a small screen. There were few dropped frames and the internal speaker, while not brilliant, was good enough.

Trying to work out the cost of Telstra’s services is fairly complex. Browsing charges start at 5MB of 1MB of traffic and range up to $29 for 70MB. Access to Foxtel content costs $12 per month while downloading other content, such as film clips, can incur a “per clip” charge.

Nokia N73 on Optus Zoo.
Until the release of the N95, the N73 was our favourite Nokia handset. It’s got a great screen and the 3.2MP camera with Carl Zeiss optics can take great snaps.

Optus’s Zoo provides access to a number of channels including the ABC, SBS, MTV and CNN streamed via Real Player. Our only gripe was that every time we tried to access some content we had to press an OK button to allow Real Player access to the data connection.

In addition to the streamed content, some video could be downloaded for later playback. However, while the download traffic isn’t metered, the videos do cost extra.

Pricing plans start at $9.90 per month for 5MB of 3G traffic and ranges up to $30 for 100MB. This is in addition to your call plan and any phone repayments.

Dopod 810 with Three XSeries.
Three’s XSeries has set a very high standard when it comes to content and pricing. We looked at the service with the Dopod 810, a Windows Mobile smartphone.

Three’s XSeries isn’t just a mobile TV and data package. Depending on your handset it also includes access to VoIP calling using Skype.

XSeries pricing plans include Skype to Skype calls, internet access and Planet 3 content access. Plans run at $20, $30 and $40 per month in addition to call and handset costs. The $40 plan includes a massive 2GB of data that you can use via Bluetooth or USB to get your Mac online if you choose a suitable handset.

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