Mobile Broadband: Testing 3's 3G Dongle

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Three things have happened recently which have made me reconsider my attitude to mobile broadband:

  1. Playing with my iPhone has made me reconsider the speeds available on mobile broadband, giving me an experience that actually matches the speeds, unlike the “meh” performance of my old Nokia.
  2. Spending a week in a WiFi-less flat in Norwich, helping Mum through chemo, makes the idea of mobile-based broadband so much more attractive.
  3. I got busted at work. For the last 18 months or so, I’ve been hooking my personal MacBook up to the company network each day, initially because it took a couple of months to sort me out with a PC down in our corporate HQ, and later because I missed too many of the applications on my Mac. The network guys finally spotted it, and booted me off the network.

So, when a guy from 3 Mobile dropped me an e-mail asking me if I would like 3 free months’ of 3G mobile broadband in exchange for blogging about my experiences good or bad, I debated the ethics of the situation, thought about the pros and cons of the offer, and then remembered that he’d said “free” and said “yes, please”.

My dongle (a word Sam the PR guy from 3 is having far too much innuendo-laden fun with in his e-mail subjects, if you ask me) turned up a week ago. I plugged it into the MacBook and it asked if it could install some software. That turned out to be the dialler below:


Click “connect”, and off you go…

Honestly, the first 24 hours made me wonder if the effort had been worth it. I could barely hold a connection in any of the places I tried, and eventually gave up. I pretty much forgot about the dongle for 24 hours, before trying again on Wednesday morning when I badly needed to get at something blocked by the corporate firewall. And it worked smoothly. And it has done since.

At it’s best, it feels like being on slightly sluggish WiFi – like being in a coffee shop when every third patron has their Apple laptop open and sucking bandwidth. Fast enough to use comfortably, but not up there with your own ADSL line. And, seeing as they’ve given me unlimited bandwidth for the time being, I’ve been abusing it thoroughly. Downloading podcasts: fine. Downloading small software apps: fine. FTP to my blog host? No probs. All good.

I have had a few on-going issues. It seems unable to hold an iChat connection for any length of time, which is intensely irritating when I’m in the middle of a conversation. And there are “spikes” of poor connection speeds, which leave me tapping my fingers in irritation on occasion.

But when it works, it works well. I’d certainly have liked one of these during those weeks in Norwich. The only thing that concerns me a little is how much bandwidth I’d actually burn using this on a paid plan. Based on 3’s website, the cheapest plan is £10 a month, and gives you 1Gb of usage. I’ve racked up 60Mb today, on fairly light use, but that’s enough to blow me right past that limit. £15 gets you 3Gb, but that feels tight if I’m going to be out and about. So it’s be the £25 7GB plan for me. Is it useful enough for me to justify that? I’m not sure. I guess we’ll find out when the three months is up…

Anyway, the next couple of weeks are going to give me the chance to test the little white dongle more extensively and in more demanding situations. I’ll report back.

Update: My later experiences have not been so good.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.