3's Mobile Internet service works - and works well enough to use a lot. Not just when one happens to be out of the office, either. This reviewer connected to 3 for a month as a dial-up replacement and gave the service a hammering. The little blue light has shone (mostly steadily) from the side of the laptop, offering download speeds approaching those of entry-level DSL services and long periods of uninterrupted connections.
At connection tester sites, the service clocked a wide range of speeds, with a high of 319 kilobits per second, low of 79kbps (still outpacing dial-up) and average of 175kbps. Every now and then a 'Webpage not found' error would require a click of the refresh button before going back to business as usual. Very occasionally, a mail server might not be found, but on second try the service got through.
The lure of a product like this seems at first obvious. It's so you can stay connected when out and about. But once any laptop user has enjoyed the freedom of being untethered, it's hard to plug in again. In this way, the 3 Mobile Internet service competes with the likes of iBurst, which offers high speed wireless Internet via laptop cards. The 3 service also offers an alternative to Wi-Fi hotspots and Internet cafes. There's no reaching for the credit card or working out which network to join each time you order a latte!
There's a perception challenge for 3, however. It is, after all, a 'mobile' network. Anyone who's ever used a mobile phone knows that even the most entrenched networks are prone to drop outs, black spots and periods of high customer demand. So for a skeptic, the idea of relying on a mobile network, even a spiffy 3G one, seems adventurous. Most of 3's customers in the mobile phone side of its business are still coming to terms with the notion of handset to handset 'video calling', which can only be achieved in video coverage areas.
It's a fact of life that mobile networks don't reach everywhere. In fact, there are still plenty of places where choice of network makes the difference between making phone calls in your house or hanging out the window. And that's just for boring ol' voice calls.
For data purposes, the interesting part of the 3 network is the high bandwidth portion - the third generation bit of the '3' moniker - which allows for internet use and video calling. Users can check the areas covered in these 'zones' online.
Now, new technologies and new networks raise obvious questions about reliability, as do the well-reported teething problems experienced by the early-bird users of 3 phones. During this review, which took place mostly in Sydney's Inner West, the average signal strength of two bars produced a good level of performance.
As with most wireless technologies, it's a good idea to get a demonstration or trial and make sure it the service works in the buildings and areas most frequented. iBurst, for example, worked at the office, but not at home. Unwired worked at home, but not in all rooms. Meanwhile, 3 worked almost everywhere at home, but not at the office. At least, not at 3G speeds.
When the little NetConnect card can't find the 3G network, it goes looking for a GPRS connection. GPRS might be suitable for downloading horoscopes on mobiles, but compared to the speed of 3G, downloading email or searching Google was just too painful to bother. With web pages and servers constantly 'not found', there's little point. So, if you're not sure you will be in a decent coverage zone, ask for a demonstration.
The 3 card produced no installation problems on a Windows XP laptop, although there was the occasional error message at start-up about a component of the software. Another rare error asked to 'check SIM orientation', but on restarting the software that soon went away. The software itself is uninspiring. The blue modular interface looks more like an MP3 player than a connection utility. It notes the time and data usage, but doesn't have a log. It doesn't sit neatly on the systray, it can only be minimised. On the upside, it does includes a simple SMS interface, which is sure to help cut a chunk out of text message charges on your regular mobile bill.
The fees for the 3 Mobile Internet service aren't as scary as anticipated. Yes, the card costs a whopping AU$540 to buy outright, but is also available for AU$25 per month on a 24-month agreement or for AU$0 upfront, or on a AU$49 monthly plan - to get 3 you'll have to sign up to some sort of a plan anyway. Users of the NetConnect card get a AU$99 per month 'business' cap. That means they can consume up to AU$500 worth of data, which is about 488MB. Go over that limit and data is charged at the casual rate of 4c/KB. A web page with a running summary of your data usage would be nice, but customers can at least call customer care to check the balance throughout the month.