Vodafone is set to sell Dell's new netbook, the Inspiron Mini 9, with built-in mobile broadband.

The Dell netbook space weighs in at just over 1kg, and has an 8.9-inch LED display. Like some of its competitors it has an SSD for storage, holding up to 16GB.

The Vodafone version of the netbook supports download speeds up to 7.2M bps (bits per second) and upload speeds up to 2Mbit/s, using HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) and HSUPA (High-Speed Uplink Packet Access), according to company spokesman Ben Taylor. The Mini 9 also comes equipped with support for Wi-Fi.

Vodafone will start selling the Mini 9 later this month, but has not yet said in which countries it will offer the netbook. For now its "in key European markets", the operator said.

Vodafone will announce pricing later, but if you just want the netbook, it sells elsewhere for from £299 (in the UK. A version with Ubuntu's version of the Linux operating system, with a user interface customized by Dell, will also go on sale with a starting price of £269. Vodafone isn't announcing which operating system it has picked, or if both will be available, according to Taylor.

Vodafone is far from alone in its interest in the laptop market. In just the last couple of weeks Orange, Telenor and TeliaSonera have also announced similar plans.

As growth has flattened in areas including voice, SMS (Short Message Service) and roaming, operators have been forced look elsewhere, and the addition of laptops to their offerings is a no-brainer, according to Shaun Collins, managing director at CCS Insight. "For the operator it's all additional business, there are for example no interconnect costs it has to share with others," said Collins, who thinks that next year laptops will grow to be as important to operators as mobile phones.

But it's not just the operators who have learned to value laptops. Laptop manufacturers have also realized that the mobile broadband market is a growth opportunity for them as well, and are more open to making deals, according to Collins.

The market is still in its infancy, and for the next couple of years there will be a land-grab, as operators fight over the customer base, according to Collins. "Then we'll start to see some differentiation," said Collins, as operators start to take advantage of the open nature of PCs, and add software to guide users to their own offerings.