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So how did each of the major mobile broadband providers perform? The charts below show you the average upload and download speeds I measured at each location. To recap, I used Speedtest.net, turned off the computer's firewall and performed three tests in succession, averaging the result. Test Results Test Site A Mobile …

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what happened to comments ?

not a suggestion just a massive thank you, my sis' birthday is coming up and the new sprog is stopping her setting up home broadband and was gonna get her mobile as a prezzie, this guide is exactly what i needed

then again its more a present to me, if i get 1 more google-something-for-me phone call i think i'ma kill her ha

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Thanks

Thanks Alun, there aren't many of these roundups for mobile BB around, very useful. A shame it came 2 days too late for me... I finally decided on a telco and took the plunge on the weekend. Thankfully, my choice (Vodafone) at least comes in as recommended!

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Thanks

Thanks for doing this comparison. TMobile used to be pretty good here in London, but recently I and mates have been feeling very let down. Good to see that it's confirmed by a more formal test, albeit in a different location.

TMobile were really the first movers in this sector; they got a lot of business by offering the only "unlimited" deal in town at a decent price. Sadly it seems they haven't been increasing capacity as the clientbase grew. I hope they get some more bandwidth, but with 24m contracts common these days they have reduced churn and the pressure's not so great on them to fulfil their promises.

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Network sharing

Aren't T-Mobile and Orange in the process of merging now anyway? And isn't there some kind of network sharing agreement in the pipeline between this new T-Orange entity and 3 before the end of the year? Presumably this would mean that these three companies would all end up sharing the best mobile broadband network.

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Vodafone Top Up & Go

Have been using a top up and go product from Vodafone for 12 months now for those times when away from home visiting family without a Broadband connection.

Still have not used the original 1gig of data allowance ! so £39 well spent.

Do they still offer this product? I am sure I have seen the packs recently in a branch of Maplin... but the Vodafone website is bereft of details for it. The nearest is a 3gig product for £15 that only lasts a month!

No use for me; 15 quid to collect a few emails and browse Google maps for a 3 day trip, I think not...

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True for one place, but..

Mobile broadband varies tremendously. If you're going to buy one get a PayG SIM and try a series of tests that mirror your usage.

I've been running similar tests myself (about 1.5 miles outside Manchester, so expected good coverage) - and here only Vodafone was actually capable of streaming a 96kbps Spotify stream without breaking up. 3 and T-Mobile couldn't even reach that speed - 3 had some days where it was so slow browsing was impossible - even though all 3 providers gave me 5 bars of HSDPA. O2 were GPRS only so discounted out of the gate.

3 do have the advantage of being cheap - £5/mo for 1GB is hard to beat.

The mobile networks are oversubscribed to the point that in the early evenings they nearly all slow to a crawl. It's a question of finding out how much they've invested in backhaul in your particular area.

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a couple of points

The article fails to mention two key things in relation to Three's network:

1. They are merging their 3G network assets with T-Mobiles to form a stonkingly large 3G network via Mobile Broadband Ltd (a Joint Venture co).

2. Three have a roaming agreement with Orange that allows 3's customers to use Orange's 3G/2G services at no extra cost in areas where there is no 3 coverage. In practice this means that it's difficult to find anywhere where there's no coverage.

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Correction

The price of O2's pay as you go 30 day / 3GB is £15 not £35 as in the article.

As for which is best, it all depends on where you are. I have both Vodafone and O2 PAYG dongles, Vodafone seems to work ok just about everywhere except for the Baldock to Cambridge train where it doesn't get any signal most of the time, not even 2G. O2 gives more variable performance in most places, but on that train it gives me HSPDA for the whole journey.

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m515

I have the m515 modem from Orange. I haven't tried another version so can't compare sensitivity. It is a little larger than the Huawei models, but has a captive cap. It works with Ubuntu Karmic provided an extra modem manager is used. Not yet tried with Lucid. Windows use seems adequate but is pretty well irrelevant.

I would like to see more coverage information in this review. I chose Orange partly for cost, partly for coverage, not at all for speed. Coverage is often patchy on trains etc. and is only 2G at a coastal site where I particularly want to use it. But the other vendors don't offer anything at all there, so this is a win.

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No problems here

Outside the scope of your tests, but still related to mobile broadband in general...

I use it regularly down here in Spain and find it a great alternative to fixed-line, with similar results (in Andalucia at least) to those that you show for 3 in the UK, using Movistar (Telefonica). Good for everything from browsing, Skype, work VPN access and 'streaming media' of course.

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Redesign the dongles PLEASE

I'd like to know if there is a practical reason why every one of these things sticks straight out from the USB like it's been at the viagra? Seriously, a sideways facing USB connector would leave a much smaller opportunity for stuffing the thing up with a careless swipe, is there an issue with signal interference or something?

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Not using a dongle

Good article, but just a note: it would have been useful, probably, to point out the possibility of not using a dongle at all. The phone companies obviously don't talk about this option very loud, as they'd far rather sell you another bit of hardware and another contract, but you can use just about any smartphone for tethering, with either first- or third-party software. There's apps for Windows Mobile and rooted iPhones and Android phones which can set them up as wireless routers, even, to share their data connections with multiple close systems. The more conventional options are to connect the phone via a USB cable or Bluetooth.

Some carriers intentionally disable the tethering functions on the phones they sell, and/or tell you not to do tethering via their AUP. The former is usually fairly easy to work around by adding a third-party application. The latter, SO I'VE HEARD, is also usually workaroundable, but of course leaves you liable to awkward calls (and large bills) from the phone company if they catch you at it. So, really, it's entirely up to you. But there are definitely quite a lot of plans which don't contractually restrict tethering.

When I visit the UK I use Tesco Mobile PAYG, which has a reasonable rate of £2 a week for 'unlimited' data and no tethering restrictions, but with the rather large proviso that 'unlimited' is not unlimited at all, but 100MB a week, which they describe as a 'fair use' restriction. Which is, of course, cobblers; it's just a limit they don't want to tell you is a limit. Ah, well. If you go in with your eyes open it's not a bad option, though there may be better. It's on O2's network, and I concur with the review that the 3G coverage on O2 is not stunning. On the Euston to Piccadilly run you get 3G most of the way, but there's definite patches where it drops to GPRS and everything slows to a crawl. It doesn't seem as slow to me as the article suggests, though, where I *do* get 3G coverage.

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My 3 & T-Mobile Experience

I have had my 3 dongle for a year and tried the T-Mobile offering. T-Mobile at the time of taking it offered the "if it doesn't work where you live bring it back" and that's exactly what I did and they did it without any fuss (Warrington). Install was fine, coverage wasn't good where I needed it.

For a client I also got all the main PAYG free SIM only and stuck them in a nokia to see the 3G coverage (Kent). This worked well and allowed them to settle on a network that worked everywhere they needed it before forking out on a contract.

So 3's service and probably the same for all:

1) Not good when in transit - e.g. on trains, cars etc. You spend all your time looking at the connection monitor to find out why outlook won't send, MUCH less productive than being offline. Fortunately Virgin West Coast have free wifi for 1st class and payfor in standard (it is t-mobile and google thinks you are in germany).

2) Connection time is painfully slow, i.e. from clicking connect to actually being able to use the connection. With a laptop on battery on the London to Ashford train you want to do a quick pick up whilst at good coverage stations. No chance, normally well over a minute to connect. Why can't it be seconds?

Specifically for 3

- when no 3G reverts to Orange coverage which is nice (2G so slow, but fine for emergencies on the side of a hill in wales when someone server as abended).

- When i took out the service I also took a 3 handset, but 3 wouldn't let me use my handset as a mobile BB connection. Therefore needed an extra bit of kit for the few times I need to connect - grr.

- Having a 3 handset is useful as it tells me whether it is worth (signal wise) booting up the laptop where I am or whether I need to find "higher ground".

Well worth it for me as an insurance for home working if BB goes down and occasional out in the field usage.

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Points on Vodafone

When I had to make a decision regarding data for my company around two years ago, I had no choice but to choose Vodafone. This was because we had to have the best coverage as I did not know where the site staff were going to be in the UK. Scotland is still sketchy, but overall it has been a resounding success, especially since the uploading capability was an important factor.

I know a couple of 3 users that have used it for business and they have purportedly had very little problem with them, but they have always used them in strong 3 areas. I did not know about the Orange partnership with 3, which makes the argument to use them even stronger since they undoubtedly win on price.

My biggest beef with all of them is the European tariff and ROW. What were OFTEL thinking when they only targeted mobile calls and texting when it was obvious that the real money was going to be in data in the future? £3 per Mb for Orange is a criminal amount to charge for data, but there isn't a straight forward way to get a pay-as-you go data dongle for your country of choosing. T-mobile and 3 had an offer on their Italian sites for pay as you go dongles at very sensible rates, but I couldn't buy it in the UK and then use it when I got there. I don't care that it is a different division of the same company, it IS the same company. I couldn't get anywhere with Vodafone.

Someone could make some serious money for those big business travellers out there, if they could consolidate charges for data regardless of which country they were in.

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O2 Web bolt-on, tethered by bluetooth to my netbook

Works fine and only £8 per month

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Orange and 3

I thought 3 used Orange's infrastructure?

Plans/Costs aside... why is there a difference in coverage?

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Take it on the road

Very good review, but the conclusion is the reverse of my experience. I had a 3 dongle and found it worse than useless when commuting between Milton Keynes and Euston. They wouldn't take it back (would have done if it didn't work at home, but it did -- though I never needed to use it at home!) and in the end I cancelled the contract (v. expensively). The software for Macs was a scandalous nightmare.

Please take your review on the road and check other locations. Also check how they perform whilst mobile -- I get the impression that they're not as good as phones are going from cell to cell. And a basic test of Mac software should be part of the deal too. You'd be doing the country a great service.

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Latency

It's not mentioned (that I noticed) in the review but what was the latency like on the networks? I ask because I have seen 1.5s+ ping response times in the past. This is the bit that screws things up.

I'm also puzzled by the massive asymmetry in the 3 results. Their download speed is good but the upload is shocking. At least Vodafone has some symmetry in it's speeds.

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www.three.co.uk

El Reg is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

Vote for 3

I've had two 3 mobile broadband sims for 2 years now and recently extended both contracts (each are 1Gb per month for £5 inc VAT - yes JUST a fiver for each!) and was "given" a new (faster) USB dongle and a MiFi dongle for nowt.

One of my original dongles is now fixed in the car linked up to a netbook acting as a trip computer/GPS/OBDII/webcam/wifi router ... and it gets a good signal most of the time and holds a connection very well even when driving around the countryside.

I've been VERY happy with the 3 network and have no problem recommending them and it sounds like they can only get better. The tariffs are very reasonable and the more you buy the better discount you can get 8-)

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Vote for Voda

About 3 weeks ago I opted for the Vodafone 30day contract at £15pm and so far its been stonkingly good across the south east (mainly Surrey and Sussex). I've also used it on both a Win 7 and MacOSX and I agree with the easy interface, I even taught my otherwise non-tech fiance to use it on both.

I did find that a software update was available via the Vodafone website and that only improved things even more!

Well worth the investment if you don't want to commit to a lengthy contract.

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This suggestion has been deleted by its author

A question about mobiles 'phones.....

.... is this.

Why should I spend money on a cheap 'dongle' that sits out side my laptop and gets in the way, when I have a perfectly good mobile [in my case a Nokia e65] that will 'do data' very nicely thank you and will connect tot he laptop via either a nice cable or, even better, Bluetooth ?

Is this not simply 'selling the same service' twice and the consumer being gullible enough to buy it ?

Really don't see the point of 'the dongle'.

P.

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Three's latency

When we moved into our new flat, we initially balked at the £110 connection fee BT wanted for setting up a landline, so we decided to try mobile broadband. For no good reason I chose 3, with the £15 one-month rolling contract and 5GB allowance. We are both heavy World of Warcraft players, and while during the day with only one of us using the connection it's quite playable, with 300-500ms ping times, once it gets to around 5pm things rapidly go downhill, with frequent huge (10 seconds or more) lag spikes, and disconnects every 15 minutes or so. Even web browsing was painful - pages sometimes stop downloading for no apparent reason.

All this despite the 3 connection manager showing a 5-bar HSDPA connection (in Crewe CW1 area).

So, at least for gaming I can't recommend 3. Possibly the problem is due to their rather slow upload speeds, I dunno - if so maybe Vodafone would be better.

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Voda

I happliy use a Vodafone dongle on my comute to work between Liverpool and Manchester , but in recent times as smart phones get more popular - the actual access speeds I'm getting are getting to be pretty slow, and painful.

Had a t-mobile connection, but that got to the point 2 years ago when I could connect, but never actually get any data back.

For commutes to London via Liverpool or Manchester - both services are pretty hopeless, with virtually no reliable coverage once you're 10 miles south of the city centres till around Milton Keynes.

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Pings, traces?

Mostly out of interest it would nice to have some trace routes from each of them :)

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Anonymous Coward

Location makes a big difference

It's a pity you didn't test in W12. Three has no reception. O2 & Orange are OK.

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please also test latency and packet loss

about a year ago I ran similar tests and found that three were best, voda and o2 were in 2nd place and t-mobile was terrible. I measured latency as well as throughput and reliability of tcp connections, and three won by a long shot on latency, o2 and voda similar and all were reliable, but t-mobile was poor.

one thing I'd ask therefore is can you for each network measure latency too, perhaps ping a well known destination and report on round trip times and also packet loss. thanks!

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