Ever since 3G data cards first appeared on the market, prices have been tumbling. When Vodafone introduced the first 3G data card, which we reviewed way back in September 2004, it was charging a minimum monthly cost of £23, for which you got a data allowance of 75MB, while 450MB a month would cost you more than double at £53 a month. When T-Mobile came on the scene it shook things up by offering a 2GB data allowance for only £20 a month as long as you took an 18-month contract.
Vodafone then stayed ahead by offering the first USB based modem, opening up the mobile broadband market to PC Card bereft Macbook users for the first time. In due course, T-Mobile followed suit, and now we really know that the market has become mainstream with the arrival of a 3G data solution from 3 - a company that despite being predicated on the fact that it runs a 3G network, used to lock down its own handsets inside a walled garden.
3's big selling point for its service is that in specific, 'Turbo' areas, its brand name for HSDPA, it can offer up to 2.8Mbps, taking it ahead of the 1.8Mpbs crowd. For this it's charging only £10 a month for the basic package - with a 1GB of data allowance. This is available in 12, 18 and 24 month packages, the difference being the charge for the USB modem, which is £100, £80, and £50 respectively. The 12 month, £10 a month package will then cost you £220 for the year. If you want the modem for free, you have to sign up for a 24 month deal at £15 a month, which will give you 3GB a month to play with. This works out at £180 per year.
If you want to use it overseas the good news is that you can use them abroad in countries with a 3 network, without incurring any roaming charges at all, Austria, Australia, Denmark, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy and Sweden. However, in countries without a 3 network, you'll have to connect via partner networks and you can expect to pay a rather eye watering £3-£6 per MB.
Cleverly, 3 has rolled out the same packages to those with 3G or HSDPA phones capable phones, so you don't have to pay for the modem if you don't wish to. The USB modem though does have advantages such as the fact that it can be used on any laptop or indeed desktop PC. A relative of mine told me recently that his internet access was provided exclusively by a USB modem from Vodafone as he rents and tends to move every few months. Previously this meant he was limited to short term dial-up contracts, but now has a fast internet service without having to bother with fixed lines. On the downside, having a USB modem on a laptop dangling from a cable isn't the most elegant solution, especially when you're balancing the modem on your lap or have to move to another location.