REVIEW: Using a mobile phone as a modem

Telstra is promoting use of mobile phones as wireless broadband modems, for those times when you need to get online but don't need to invest in a dedicated device. Ian Yates puts the proposition to the test.

When you’re out and about, you often need to get online for some reason or other. Maybe you’ve got a Crackberry, an iPhone on order or you’ve got some other web-enabled PDA secreted about your person?You can head off early too. For those who use a notebook, and rely on WiFi hotspots or a stray piece of Ethernet cable, there are times when trying to get online just gets you nowhere – fast.

Of course, you might have one of those Telstra NextG USB modems, but if you can afford their monthly charges then you must be a serial away-from-home onliner, or perhaps your financial situation allows you to care not a jot about the price of fuel for your helicopter. The rest of us have to make do with a notebook, and usually, the boss lets us have an ordinary mobile phone, which these days means 3G from Hutchison, Vodafone, Optus or Telstra amongst others. And when there’s no Ethernet and no WiFi you should be able to use your 3G phone to get online.

This is not a cheap way to get online – the data rates are a tad steep. Okay, we lied, they’re outright piracy. But if you hardly ever need it, the charges don’t look so bad compared with paying a monthly fee to have a mostly unused but genuine WiMAX or NextG modem in your briefcase. Not all mobile phones can behave as a wireless modem but most recent ones can. For starters, you’ll need to dig out the CD that came with the phone – if you can remember where you parked the thing. Never fear, you can get the drivers and software online if the CD is missing. We’ll wait while you do that.

Okay. Now that you’ve loaded the software, you’ll find a menu item that lets you use your phone as a modem – and it’s way faster than the old 56Kbps we all used before ADSL came along. However, it’s not way faster than even the cheapest ADSL service. What you’ll get is around 230Kbps – not even as good as a 256Kbps ADSL link and way slower than a theoretical 7.2Mbps NextG modem. Let me know if you ever hit 7.2Mbps – the best we’ve managed is around half that, still not to be sneezed at, but a tad below the advertised numbers.

We asked Telstra to send us a phone so we could try out this method of access, and instead they sent us a link to their website, where there are a number of “how-to” PDFs stored for various phones. Harumph! Anyway, one of the how-to guides happened to be for the Samsung A411 phone, which we happened to own, so we decided to follow the instructions and see what happened next. Unfortunately this also meant we’d be paying for our own data phone calls, like real people, rather than getting a free ride like real reviewers.

Shock, horror, disbelief! The PDF for the Samsung contained the exact same information and screenshots that came up on the screen when we loaded the software from the CD. We even got the same slightly confusing choice of “Samsung CDMA modem” despite there being no more CDMA. This is, however, what the thing calls itself, despite the fact that it works on 3G networks. There was a drop down menu to choose the carrier, and no need to enter a number to dial – the software fills it all in for you. Of course, we needed a valid username and password to get connected, so we just used the same name and password we use to access our Bigpond ADSL account.

If you’ve got an Optus account in the office or home, then you should be able to get connected by choosing their name from the drop down. If you’ve got neither Telstra nor Optus ADSL then you probably need to arrange some sort of dialin access in advance with your phone company. Anyway, we soon found we were connected and we could access email and anything else on the Internet for that matter. However, don’t forget that the data charges are quite high if you are on a standard phone plan, so if you intend doing this on a regular basis you might want to investigate your billing options.

But it works! You can indeed get your notebook online anywhere you can get a mobile phone signal. And that’s the entire planet isn’t it? Well, that’s what it says in the advertising and surely they wouldn’t mislead us?

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