Thus far the 3G dream, of ubiquitous high speed data, has yet to be realised. The limited (to non-existent) data facilities offered by mobile operator 3’s current 3G service has been a huge disappointment to the business community, the one market that has been crying out for the high-speed wireless connectivity that this technology can offer.
But there’s now light at the end of the tunnel: 13 months after it launched its 2.5G GPRS service, Vodafone has launched its 3G data service first, with the consumer, (i.e. voice) 3G service held back till sometime in the autumn. T-Mobile won't be far behind either: its voice and data service is promised for a launch in May, prompting us to wonder if now may be the time for businesses to start looking seriously at 3G.
Clearly it’s early days for Vodafone's 3G Mobile Connect card. From the outset you’ll be able to roam Vodafone’s 3G networks in Holland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Japan, with Germany, France, Sweden and Ireland coming on-stream in May. It also uses GPRS as a fall-back option. A follow-up version is promised which will offer tri-band coverage, embracing WDCMA, thus permitting roaming in the US. And further down the line, a future version will also incorporate Wi-Fi support, according to Vodafone.
Just as GPRS offers bandwidth significantly lower than that first touted, the eventually speed of Vodafone’s 3G service is similarly less than the original expectation. It offers a reasonably fast 384 kbit/s of bandwidth when downloading but a rather more GPRS-like 64 kbit/s when uploading. So, because it is so distinctly asymmetric, the 3G service will be unsuitable for a range of business tasks, such as video conferencing.
Coverage and costs
Disappointing it might be but it remains the fastest mobile data connection you’ll get without breaking the bank, eclipsing current GPRS performance by as much as a factor of 10. On a good day, Vodafone’s 3G service is capable of delivering broadband-ish performance.
Vodafone’s 3G coverage in the UK isn’t great at the moment – major cities are covered, e.g. London/M25, Manchester, Liverpool, Southampton, Bristol and Cardiff as well as the M4 corridor. According to Vodafone, its 3G service can only reach 30 percent of UK users at present, though 50 percent coverage is promised by the autumn. The fall-back, GPRS, has a 99 percent reach in this country and is available in 35 other countries, too.
Pricing is fairly reasonable and is broadly comparable with the much slower GPRS tariffs. The cost of the card depends on which of the four data tariffs you sign up for. At the top end, ‘Power users’, who consume 500 Mbyte of data per month, will pay £50 for the card and £85 per month for the service. At the other end of the scale ‘Low users’ will pay £150 and £10/month for 5 Mbyte respectively. And if you exceed your bundle of megabytes, you’ll pay between 50p and £2 per Mbyte (All prices ex VAT). As an early adopter carrot, Vodafone is offering to double the size of the data bundles if you sign up before October.
The 3G Mobile Connect data card resembles its GPRS predecessor with its vivid red colour scheme. It has a pair of status LEDs, one blue, one green, though what they represent isn’t spelled out in the online help or User Guide. Gone is the previous Mobile Connect’s little pull-out tab antenna. Instead you are supplied with a separate plug-in ‘stick’ antenna on a short lead, which you can Velcro on to the back of your notebook screen. In my tests, the antenna didn’t seem to make any difference to the signal strength ‘bar count’.
Two versions of the Mobile Connect software are provided – one for pure Internet use, the other for connecting to corporate VPNs. The drivers work best with Windows 2000/XP and allow multiplexing, which lets you send and receive SMS text messages while connected to the 3G network, a trick that isn’t possible under other versions of Windows. There is no MacOS support provided at present.
Superfluous software
The supplied front-end software, Dashboard, is a teensy bit superfluous – you really don’t need another pair of buttons to launch your browser or your email client. Vodafone includes its very own IM client, Vodafone Messenger, but I am not really sure what this offers over and above the most popular IM clients, which run perfectly well.
The useful thing in Dashboard is a running count of your data usage, split between GPRS and 3G, plus a smattering of performance stats. It would have been nice if you could set your tariff data limit here, to help avoid going in to the red.
Dashboard is due to be revised later this year and the new version will let you toggle between 3G and Wi-Fi if you have a Centrino-based notebook. You can also send SMS text messages from Dashboard but that’s about as close to a cellphone as the 3G Mobile Connect gets – although the card does have a socket suggestively like that required by a hands-free headset, voice is not supported in this model. So you’ll still need your mobile when you’re out and about.
To get the 3G Mobile Connect up and running, you simply install the driver software, slide in a SIM card and then insert the card in to a Cardbus slot on your notebook. You launch Vodafone’s Dashboard front-end utility, click on the big green Connect button and after a bit of handshaking you’re online at 384 Kbit/s. And yes, it does deliver up to 384 kbit/s of bandwidth, though it can take a while to build-up to this during a download, so it’s not quite like broadband. It may be early days but the 3G service seems less unpredictable than GPRS, which can be unusable at times.
Fallback hiccups
If there’s no 3G coverage, it will fall-back to GPRS. This is supposed to be seamless, but I was unable to test this. I did spot or two hiccups however. I took my notebook into the wilds of Kent and sure enough the 3G service wasn’t available. But GPRS was and the card connected quite happily to the 57.6 kbit/s service. However, when I returned to London, the card stayed ‘stuck’ on GPRS. It would not automatically reconnect to the 3G service - it took me a few attempts to force it to reconnect.
The card didn’t much like standby or hibernation either and I had to shut down/restart my notebook in order to reconnect. You can set the card to maintain a GPRS connection during standby but the Mobile Connect card is already fairly power-hungry so I suspect that this may significantly reduce laptop battery life.

OUR VERDICT

If you spend a lot of time out of reach of Wi-Fi hotspots and yet have heavy-duty network needs, either via the Internet or your corporate LAN, the 3G Mobile Connect is the best solution currently available, kicking GPRS into touch. But the high speed is only for downloads - if you need to upload shedloads of data, this 3G service is still not quite the answer.