3G review: Is next-generation mobile broadband ready for business?

Mobile broadband has undergone a makeover of late. Developments in technology, increased competition and falling prices mean it is getting easier to work on the road using a mobile dongle. The question still remains, however, should more businesses provide their staff with dongles?

Mobile broadband has undergone a makeover of late. Developments in technology, increased competition and falling prices mean it is getting easier to work on the road using a mobile dongle. The question still remains, however, should more businesses provide their staff with dongles?

Three, and the Huawei E367 dongle have moved from HSDPA (high-speed downlink packet access) to HSPA+ (high-speed packet access). Whereas normal HSDPA offers speeds of 3.4 to 7.2MBps, HSPA+ claims to offer speeds of up to 21Mbps for uploads and 84Mbps for downloads, but this depends on network coverage.

The improved performance comes courtesy of multiple input and multiple output (MIMO) technology which, through the use of more than one antenna, allows more data to pass through at a quicker speed.

Unlike Three, Virgin Media offers speeds of up to 7.2Mbps through the Alcatel X220s One Touch USB modem (but just as with the Three dongle, the speed depends on the connection type). Alcatel list a universal mobile telecommunications system (UMTS) connection download speed as up to 384kbps and an Edge connection download speed as up to 237Kbps.

Using speedtest.net, the Three dongle, when showing a HSPA connection, offered a download speed of 780kbps and an upload speed of 60kbps. In contrast, the HSDPA connection from Virgin produced a speed of 390kbps for a download and 30kbps for an upload. The Huawei dongle HSDPA speeds were similar, at 410kbps download and 30kbps upload.

Although these speeds are a far cry from the manufacturer's claims, both the Three and Virgin Media dongles appear to cope easily with sending and receiving e-mails, web browsing and light streaming, although lengthier video requires time to buffer.

Janusz Jezowicz, of broadbandspeedchecker.co.uk, said: "In terms of bandwidth use, communication tools like Skype vary, depending on the video and voice quality. Standard Skype voice calls use about 20-30MB per hour, video is much more demanding - between 100-200MB per hour. Even though Skype has a great bandwidth usage, video is very costly on 3G mobile dongles."

He said that other types of presentation, screen sharing and remote access tools like Citrix, RDP and GotoMeeting tend to use less bandwidth than programmes like Skype. This is because the compression is optimised for screen sharing: "the average usage rates are between 20-50 MB per hour," said Janusz Jezowicz.

Users can send and receive Word documents, PowerPoint slides and other documents as e-mail attachments using mobile dongles, but an 8Mbyte file will take around 12 minutes to upload. Both dongles actively compress online images to speed up the connection, but neither offer built-in file compression to speed up user uploads.

Three's monthly contracts are either 18 or 24 months long, with the 18-month contracts costing either £8.89 for 1GB or £17.01 for 5GB of usage per month, costing. However, for the longer commitment that comes with the 24 -month contract Three offers 12GB per month for £17.01.

Pay as you go you customers can get 1GB, lasting 30 days, for £34.99, 3GB, lasting three months, for £44.99 or 12GB, lasting a year, for £99.99. All of the prices include the dongle.

Top-ups are available, an additional 500Mb costs another £2.99, 1GB is £10, 3GB is £15 and, finally, 7GB costs £25.

Virgin offer only 18-month or two-month contracts, with the 1GB per month 18-month contract costing £10.21, and the 18 month 3GB option costing £15.32. The two-month contracts offer the same data at the same cost; however, a one-off payment of £24.99 needs to be made for the USB.

Virgin does not offer a pay as you go option, simply stating that, if users exceed their data allowance, they will incur a charge of £15 for each additional GB.

Beware of going over the limit. Working on the assumption that an hour of HD video content is 7GB, it could cost a user up to an additional £90 to watch a CEO deliver a presentation.

Chris Marling, editor of Broadbandgenie.co.uk, said: "It's impossible to nail down exact numbers when it comes to bandwidth usage, but one hour of instant messaging is 0.25-1MB of usage, One hour of web browsing is 1.5-25MB, downloading 100 e-mails is 1-10MB, downloading one photo 0.05-2MB, one software download 70-800MB, streaming one hour of video is 250-500MB and streaming one hour of audio is roughly 50-150MB."

A big plus for IT helpdesks is that both dongles are plug and play. They come with the manufacturers guarantee and helpline, so if any problems arise they can just be replaced.

Virgin's software looks primitive and outdated compared to Three's. It's easy to navigate and find the necessary information using both and it is worth noting it is possible to send and receive SMS messages through the broadband dongles, albeit at an extra cost of 10p.

The biggest risks that business users may face is that if the dongle is lost or misplaced anyone can use it. Users are obliged to contact the provider to cancel or suspend the account.

Unlike a wireless broadband connection, mobile broadband does not give off a signal so the connection is potentially more secure. Furthermore, the provider's mobile network used by the dongles is already encrypted, which is like having a WEP or WPA key built in. The dongles use a local IP address sitting behind the provider's firewall, rather than being assigned one. This does have a downside though; you will be unable to save files from some sites that cap the amount each IP address is able to download.

A speedtest.net spokesman pointed out that many web pages are now optimised to load quickly by limiting the size of the page and compressing data, due to the rise of the iPhone, iPads and Android devices. "Web designers are still very conscious about load-times. Most mobile devices eschew Flash because it's too slow on mobile processors, but you can also uninstall Flash on your PC to lower the data used by webpages."

Business meetings could be carried out whilst one or more of the participants are elsewhere, office systems can be accessed whilst on the move, there are no fiddly wires to plug in or out, especially if you are in a cramped space and, most importantly of all, they are very little security concerns.

As well as mobile broadband being a potential solution for employees in rural areas without an adequate broadband connection i.e. teleworkers, employees out on field service and commuters, providing they are above ground and are able to pick up a signal, it could also be used by small offices in order to shed line rental costs.

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