Pay as You Go 3G Broadband from Three: A Review

January 18, 2009

in Mobile Internet

Internet Addicts Anonymous
I was unlucky enough to know a time when ‘always on’ broadband was a rare luxury. Actually, if I’m honest I remember a time when no one, save a few lonely academics, had even heard of the Internet!

Thankfully these days low cost highspeed connections are the norm and more and more families around the world are connecting up to the World Wide Web. But this presents a problem for us ‘net addicts – what do we do when we are away from home?

Third Generation Mobile Broadband
To prevent the onset of sudden Web withdrawal symptoms I recently purchased a pre pay mobile modem dongle from the nice people at Three. I will apologise early on for what will be a very UK focused post. If anyone is interested in reviewing the equivalent for the US or elsewhere then please jump in!

The deal I signed up to gave me the following:

  • 12gb of data usage
  • A one year limit to use that 12gb
  • A mobile E160G broadband modem dongle

So is it any good? Read On!

Getting started
Installation is very straight forward. Simply plug your new dongle in and the Thee connection software will load up automatically. In my case it then updated itself immediately to a newer version so it might be handy to have your NC10 online already. Your experience may be different!

Once the software install is out the way it should detect the modem and you can join the world wide web by hitting the large connect button!

You may like to configure a couple of options, for example you can give your SIM card a pin code (much like on a normal mobile) that will ensure your Internet connection is protected in the event of theft. I would recommend doing this as any illegal Internet activity that followed might be traced back to you in the future. In the event of theft remember to tell your ISP as soon as possible!

Connectivity Experience
This is something that will obviously vary massively depending where you live in the UK, but for what it is worth I will share my own experience. I was recently driven over to Wales from London and took my NC10 along for the ride. I powered up Sammy as we got onto the M4 and had it on the whole way (a 4hr journey is no sweat for this netbook’s battery!). My expectations were not high, for those that don’t know, the M4 is a motorway connecting London to the West of the UK. It passes through many built up areas but also a number of quite rural ones too. However I found that connectivity was maintained very well with only one noticeable disconnection. To be honest that almost rivals my home broadband setup!

I have also been using mobile broadband on my daily commute into the centre of London. This involves a thirty minute train ride up from Surrey into the heart of town. This experience is again positive but I have come to learn that there are certain spots where I experience a disconnection on most days! Generally I only get 2 or 3 “bars” of connectivity in the more unpopulated spots but I find this doesn’t seem to affect the quality of my experience. Pages still load in a reasonable time and web browsing is a pleasant experience.

High speed game fans might be a bit dissapointed by mobile broadband ping times, typically varying from 100ms up to 300ms. Not what I would want to be playing with myself but fine for slower paced games perhaps? Gaming can also eat up your bandwidth, so remember to keep an eye on your usage. This can be tracked on the 3 website or a rough estimate can be got through the connection software too:

Dongle
There is a lot of interest in the 3G version on the NC10 which is already available for pre-order from Dabs. A SammyNetbook.com member has also contacted me to say that he has been talking to Samsung who have informed him that they are shipping early February. However he also told me that the price is likely to be nearer £400 which will put off many when they consider the alternative…

So how is life with a dongle? Well it’s not ideal having to pull it out from my bag each time I want to go online but it honestly isn’t a big problem. You have to slot it in, wait for it to be detected, but then away you go. I have no regrets about waiting for the new model. The one supplied in my Three package is the Huawei E160G. It is also possible to get the Huawei E169G from Three at a greater cost. The difference is that the updated dongle will be able to take advantage of 7.2Mbits/sec HSDPA services, whereas the E160G is limited to only 3.6Mbits/sec. It is worth noting that 3’s network currently runs at the lower speed but planned improvements should see an increase over the next 12 to 18 months.

A further bonus is that the dongle can be used on any PC, just plug and play, no software to install. This is a great backup if you get the occasional disconnection from your home provider. You can even purchase mobile broadband routers to share your connection around the house.

Anonymous Browsing
A question I have seen asked a number of times is whether Mobile Broadband connections are anonymous. It is true that I did not have to register with Three and I assume that it might be possible to buy one from a store and pay with cash. But as soon as you go online there are many ways you might give yourself away:

  • Sign into your email account
  • Use social networking sites
  • Make a purchase
  • Fail to clear out old cookies

There are about a million ways in which you could link yourself to a registered IP or user account.

I would imagine the authorities could also triangulate your position (I’ve seen Enemy of the State!) and at the least identify your street if not actual address! Perhaps this is a way to improve your privacy but don’t be under the impression that you can get away with anything! I would think Tor remains a better alternative!

Summary
The mobile broadband revolution has started and I think it still needs some time to mature before people get the highest level of service – both in terms of coverage and speed. Those with top level expectations may well be a little disappointed but most people will in all likelihood enjoy using their new dongles. I have had a positive experience in general and I already could not live without my Three dongle. With the addition of a Huawei D100 Wireless Broadband Router it is now even possible to do away with your BT landline and feed your home Internet connection from one of these devices!

Interested? Check out what’s available:

Leave a Comment

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

adatay92 January 18, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Thanks Jez, interesting article. It’s something i’ve been toying with a while.

How much are the top ups once the original 12gb expires? And do these top ups have an expiry like 30 days?

jez January 18, 2009 at 9:58 pm

I’ve barely used 100mb yet so I don’t think I’ll be buying any top ups for a while!

Off the top of my head I think its £10 for 1gb and it lasts 30 days. So it’s like being on their contract really except if you don’t use it for a bit you can not buy any bandwidth.

I’ll check next time I log in to the My3 admin page.

pat-w January 18, 2009 at 10:01 pm

I’ve got the older model of a three mobile dongle, & its works fine for me.
I’ve used mine in London, Cornwall, Wales, plus lots of other parts of the UK & its always worked when I wanted it to.

I did think that it was a bit noticeable sticking out the side of my laptop, so I got a 20cm right angle usb extension cable from e-bay.

They cost around £6 on e-bay ( just search for “right angle usb extension” )

I found it was worth the price. Place the dongle behind the screen, its out of the way & out of sight.

I’m now using both the dongle & the usb extension lead with my NC10.

I won’t be upgrading to the 3G version of the NC10 if there is no other advantage than not plugging in a usb dongle.

I may upgrade the dongle to the Huawei E169G from Three when the speed increase 7.2Mbits/sec HSDPA services are rolled out.
Thanks for the info.

fatnbald January 18, 2009 at 10:09 pm

Hi Jez, good review, what is the coverage like from these dongles, do you get a signal / performance difference moving around various parts of buildings?

laserlout January 18, 2009 at 11:22 pm

Another way to stop having to plug it in all the time is to stick it to the back of the netbook with double sided tape and then use a thin usb extension cable or retractable one to connect to the usb port. I am currently looking to do something like that as I find that the dongle is in the way most of the time. But overall I am very happy with the speed of the broadband even sitting in the middle of Silverstone circuit and surfing the net. I am on a Three deal paying £7.50per month for mine, as I got it cheaper being a three contract mobile user.

jez January 19, 2009 at 10:37 am

Three did a £7.50 deal through quidco a while back, I heard about it through the MSE newsletter. I am waiting for them to do it again (long wait?) and will post up if I see the offer on again!

My package actually came with an extension lead although I never really considered using it. One of those right-angle ones would be better though!

I have used the service in my work building and got great signal all over – but it is in Victoria. It also worked fine in South Wales – about 30mins on from Swansea. I did only have a few bars but it was perfectly usable.

techguyone January 19, 2009 at 8:40 pm

12 Gb for a YEAR? is that right, I’d eat that in about 1 month at most @@

jez January 19, 2009 at 9:29 pm

Yep 12gb for a whole year! Yes I wouldn’t survive either if that was my only connection. But if you save downloads until you get home and avoid funny cat videos on YouTube it should go down slow enough ;). I’ve only used a few hundred mb. I might start listening to the radio on the way home to ensure I use it up!

snowman January 20, 2009 at 9:50 am

I’ve got one of these on contract (£10 a month for up to a Gig).

I find it doesn’t always connect and get correctly identified by the PC (I use it mainly on my laptop for work) and the signal is a little sporadic (great most of the time, hopeless in some locations where a mobile phone signal is strong), but overall it works pretty well and gives me the occasional internet access I require on the move.

I’ve used it on trains, in offices, at airports and around the house and it’s worked well in most environments (signal issue notwithstanding).

A gig a month is a huge amount for the kind of use I put it to (I actually measured my home use for a month before buying it and recorded about 3GB of use, I don’t download a lot), but might pose problems for anyone looking for this as their sole access (you can get deals with greater download capacity, of course).

I used it in Holland before Christmas for a customer demo and it worked pretty well, but that was at roaming rates, which aren’t cheap (fortunately I was able to expense that! :) )

The dongle does, as some have said, look and feel a bit exposed sticking out of the side of a USB slot and my experience with USB sticks makes me wonder if the thing would stand up to daily use over 12 months, although it seems pretty well made as USB sticks go, being a little larger (partly to accommodate the SIM card).

M.

wintpe January 20, 2009 at 11:43 am

i would be very carefull about signing up for three mobile broadband. I did and so did many of my friends with macs, and netbooks of all shapes and sizes. Threes performance is realy poor once you have passed the 7 day period. go vodaphone, t-mobile, or anything but three.
if you dont think my opinion counts check out this 400 page thread about nealy 2000 people complaining about the poor performance
http://www.boards.ie/vbulletin/showthread.php?t=2055115306

Richard T January 20, 2009 at 12:11 pm

So you get 12gb each year and after that you have to top up?
Here in Ireland the “3” HSDPA network is hated!
If you have a look here3 broarband-The problems mega thread

But i have used it in the U.K and got 1.2-1.5mb/300kbps up

Not bad really

What speeds have you got?

jez January 20, 2009 at 12:47 pm

I haven’t run a “speed test” yet, I should get on to that really!

If people have doubts about the 3 network in their area then Pay as You go is a good way to check it out, the 3 month entry level one is about £40? Personally I wouldn’t sign up to any of the long contracts (most seem to be 18months!) as prices are sure to come down?

I have no particular loyalty to any network and sensible advice would seem be to check out feedback in your area as coverage does vary between the different suppliers in different places!

In London 3 seems fine, for me at least :)!

JezH January 22, 2009 at 10:57 pm

Another alternative if you only want occasional use is the new “TopUp and Go” from Vodafone. It’s a bit more expensive per Gb at £15, but the great thing is the credit never expires.

I got one just before Christmas (same day I bought the NC10!) – it cost £39 for the dongle and came with 1Gb of credit already loaded. I’ve only used 50p so far, so at this rate I won’t need to top up until 2010!.

Coverage seem patchy. I get good 3G reception at home, but not so good at my parents. Hopefully it will get better over time.

snowman January 23, 2009 at 10:47 pm

>> Personally I wouldn’t sign up to any of the long contracts (most seem to be 18months!) as prices are sure to come down?

I wondered that, but figured £10 a month is probably as low as it’s likely to get (and certainly low enough not to disuade me).

More likely you’ll be able to get MORE for your £10/£20 or whatever as with mobile phone rates where you can get more minutes per month than there ARE in a month, but as I never get near using my 1GB that’s a rather worthless offer to me.

M

UK_Al January 25, 2009 at 7:08 pm

Hey Jez, thanks for starting this thread. I opened a 3G pay as you go account with Vodafone about 4 months ago and my experience has been far from satisfactory.

I live in the middle of East Anglia but I may as well live at the north pole as far as internet access is concerned, so the promise of actually having a “broadband” service, and one that was accessible “where ever you go”, seemed like a dream come true. I am limited to Vodafone as they are the only service provider to offer coverage for my postcode, but, allegedly, they have the best coverage and access speed in the UK.

Vodafone has excellent mobile phone coverage in my district, and the Vodafone service coverage map promised full strength coverage for my postcode. The sales person promised up to 7.2Mbps download speed. Wow? No! What I got was a GPRS connection with a download speed of 24kbps in the house, and a 1 bar 3G connection if I stood at the top of the landing and held the laptop in one hand while I pointed the USB modem out the window in the direction of the nearest mast. I also tested out access around Colchester and Ipswich, and the best signal strength I managed was 2 bars (out of 5) which gave me an effective 334kbps download speed.

But, spurred on by my 1 bar signal at the top of the landing, and the enticement of broadband internet, I took the plunge and bought an Option datacard (£150) an external directional 3G antenna (£80), and a Billion router (£140). OMG – I’ve never added it all up before! Anyway after a few nightmarish attempts at trying to get the antenna erected (not recommended if you are acrophobic) and the pigtail connector to fit into the data card (with the help of a great guy at ConnexTech) I finally managed to get a reliable connection with consistent download speeds around 500kbps – halejooooooooyah!

So, back to my point – 3G ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be, and unless, like me, you really haven’t much choice, I would definitely not take out an extended contract until you are confident that the coverage lives up to the hype dished out by the phone companies.

cheers, Al

jez January 25, 2009 at 8:58 pm

Thanks for sharing that Al! I bet 500kbps is an amazing experience compared to what you’ve had ! tbh that should be a fair speed for surfing around but still painful for big downloads I bet :(.

I totally agree, 3G broadband today is “OK” but people with high expectations and not a lot of patience just aren’t going to be satisfied. Since writing my original bit I’ve found that I’ve been getting one or two disconnects on the train every day. This is not below my expectations for a moving train and I can live with it but some people will find it totally frustrating I bet.

I’m sure in time it will get much more stable with improved coverage.

econ0013 January 31, 2009 at 4:33 pm

I have a 3 modem on a 12 month contract, have had it for almost a year..
I Have the 3GB amonth for £15 contract. I have found it more reliable than the BT connection in my house. I get up to 100K+ downloading, usually about 50kps.
I have also used it alot on trains and busses in the middle of rural gloucestershire and have never had a problem with reception. Overall have been very inpressed. Whe my contract expires next month I may get the PAYG 12GB ecauset I dont need that much downloading.

sonysandy February 25, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Anyone saying they’d eat up 12gig in 1 month is nuts. This isn’t home broadband replacement tech, this is for when your out and about! Although it could be if your one of these infrequent surfers, I’ve a friend of a friend who couldn’t get any broadband and they’ve gone this route, suits them fine.

I’ve been house sitting where there is no broadband, but I get 200kb-ish connection when checking on speedtest.net, which is perfectly acceptable for quick surfing. I’ve been hammering it recently checking out as many vid clips as I can for mobile projectors, and in 7 days i’ve used 150mb!

Obviously the decision between Peasant and you Go, Pre-pay or contract is entirely your own. Each have their own advantages, Pay and Go you get what you pay for, and if you don’t use it one month you don’t top up (and it costs you nothing). Pre-pay well you’ve got that piece of mind that you can use it when you want. Pay monthly, its always there for you, and you’ll probably get something free, 4gig mini-SD or such, but remember you’ll be tied in for 18months at £10 a month, so if you end up not using it as much as you could its an expensive £180 desk ornament.

My personal feeling on this technology, if your not sure its for you, or that you get reception. Beg/borrow a mates one, failing that go Peasant as you go, or Pre-pay. That way if its unsuitable for you it’ll be easy to punt on via e-bay, you’ll make your money back at least. Plus you could easily switch onto a contract after a couple of months, you’ll still be able to sell on your old dongle, or maybe haggle some discount in store when getting your contract.

All I hope now is that we’ll get a setup we can use abroad…. ;) now that would be sweet! Oh yeah and its gotta be affordable, I know 3 do roaming, but its just silly money.

sonysandy February 25, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Infact I’ve just speedtest.net checked my connection from work… See results with 3.

http://www.speedtest.net/result/418074547.png

jez February 25, 2009 at 9:38 pm

It is now clear to me a month after writing that – it is very unlikely I will get through the 12gb usage in my 1 year allowance. I won’t hold back watching an iPlayer download or two whilst on the move to try and use some bandwidth up :)!

philip_l April 27, 2009 at 12:22 pm

I’ve gone for the 3G enabled Samsung NC10, it’s around a £100 premium which is a lot considering a USB dongle can be had for around £40 (or free on contract) with some usage included. I’ve been using a 3 USB dongle on a laptop and find having it sticking out the side is a liability, and it’s not in the best position for getting a signal.

The NC10 with 3G uses a Samsung Y3100 PCI-e card, and their bundled connection software is simple but very usable and works. There is a huge list of provider settings included and it picks the correct one automatically.

The signal is much better than with a dongle or even a mobile phone as two aerials are used for diversity which are either side of the LCD screen, and they are higher up and away from the electronics of the netbook. It’s great just being able to use the netbook without having to mess around plugging in dongles and worrying about not knocking it. It keeps the small form factor small.

As for 3 themselves, they are not the best of the bunch with complaints being easy to find, and I’ve had problems with the connection dropping out at home despite a good signal, or very very slow speeds when connected. Things have improved recently so hopefully they have upgraded the mast or network near me, as 3 are currently merging sites with T-Mobile and sharing their infrastructure.

Also worth knowing is their data plans DO NOT give you the backup of 2G data access. If you are outside a 3G area then you will not be able to connect to 2G to at least get some access, also this means more dropouts while on the move as you pass through 3G black spots.

One positive and a tip, if you change the APN name from three.co.uk to 3internet, you will get a public IP address rather than a NAT local IP address on the 3 network and this can solve problems getting some software working, for example VoIP software or VPNs. Vodafone for example you are stucked with an internal IP address on their network in the UK.

jez April 27, 2009 at 12:38 pm

Thanks for that Phil, might be worth reproducing some of that in the forum if you haven’t already done so. Interesting about the final point, it’s not something I’ve noticed but will check out.

I’ve been finding my 3 connection is still “OK”. It works enough of the time to be worth having but it can be frustrating. I hope it improves in time :)

jasoninertia September 25, 2009 at 9:37 am

I pay around 7 uk pounds a month for UFON in the czech republic , no data limit and a free dongle , its a contract but for that price you would hardly miss it , the speed is about the same as a weak wifi connection . and 12 gb I use that in a week or so , but then again it is my only net connection . I use youtube a lot and use the net to watch english kids show with my 1 year old daughter . I also downolad a lot of junk that I dont really need .
I have used “3” when I lived in th uk , I found them to be ok in the beginning but when I tried to cancel my contract they would not do it despite me being well out of the contract time , they continued to take money out of my account , and when I stopped the direct debit to stop them taking anymore they tried to take me to court . but they did send me a letter saying “sorry your leaving 3” , if you have any issues with them its a nightmare to get them resolved , the call centre is run like a workhouse , all the staff read from auto prompts on the screen , they do not listen to a word you say and they do not take any case notes down when you ask them to , also they will refuse to give you transcripts of any notes made on your account , wich is illegal . my advice is dont go with “3” orange pay as you go in the uk was the best I could find without resorting to going with “3” , I have always found orange customer services to be very helpful , in fact they have gone the extra mile more than once on my account while I was living in the uk . anyway thats my 10p worth

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