Ever since I had to switch my broadband account last Christmas after a particularly bad dose of customer service from Bulldog, I’ve been hoping for a decent alternative to wired broadband. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I just don’t like the way the broadband industry has consumers over a barrel in this country. It’s not the contracts or the much-publicised over-ambitious speed claims that bug me, but the delay and downtime you have to go through if you want to do something as simple as switch providers.
Mobile phone companies such as Orange could hold the key to the broadband conundrum, and are currently working on being able to offer broadband-style speeds over the air on mobile phone networks. HSDPA at 3.6Mbit/sec is already widely available – and the next step up on the ladder is 7.2Mbit/sec, with all the major providers currently in the throes of attempting to roll out a service. At these speeds you could feasibly dump BT completely if you’re not a heavy broadband user, and though you might have to tie yourself into a 12 or 18 month contract, at least you won’t have to wait for a week while BT’s engineers decide whether it’s worth actually putting their cups of tea down and doing some work for a change.
Orange’s rather tortuously-named Option ICON 2 USB Modem is the kit you need to access such a service. It can support the very latest 7.2Mbit/sec HSDPA speeds, and under ideal conditions it should be able to deliver a broadband experience to rival the service most people receive from their wired broadband supplier. Alas, it turns out to be a bit of a disappointment.
I’m not talking about the hardware here. That seems to be well-designed enough. To set it all up, all you need to do is take it out of the box, plug it into a spare USB socket, either directly or using the supplied stubby USB extension cable, and the rest is taken care of automatically. The software and drivers required for connecting your laptop to the Orange network is squirted onto your computer for you, a process that works on both Macs and PCs, and all you have to do to get online is click the Connect button on the small application window that pops up.
It even installs an SMS utility so you can send texts from your laptop without having to stab away at the keypad on your mobile phone. It’s not the most elegantly designed piece of kit and its home-made ice lolly shape is both awkward and on the large side, but it doesn’t weigh a lot and it is easy enough to bung in a laptop bag with all your other bits and pieces.
It’s the rest of the solution that doesn’t yet cut the mustard. Orange’s Flexible Data deals with the Option 2 initially look pretty good. You can buy the modem for a mere £25.52 and then simply pay as and when you use it at a flat rate of £1 per MB. You also get Wi-Fi access at hotspots for 9p per minute (BT Openzone and WeRoam hotspots in the UK) and roaming data is £6.50 per MB.
This is a pretty good solution for a backup when your wired link at home goes down, as it’s always available and you’re not tied to an expensive data contract. It also means, as long as you remember to pack it, you don’t have to go hunting for an Internet café if you’ve got an urgent email to send or you need to log on to the office network while out and about.
But when you start to consider using the Option 2 for more intensive use the tariffs start to look a little meaner. Pay £19.30 per month and all you get is an allowance of 160MB; £33.78 gets you a meagre 318MB and you have to go all the way up to £43.43 for a 1GB allowance. In today’s connected world, it’s quite easy to download several hundred megabytes in a day, just through general email correspondence and moderate Internet browsing – these prices and allowances are simply not realistic.
To illustrate this, I paid a visit to Gmail, logged in and opened an email containing a link to a friend’s Facebook profile. By the time I’d clicked that link and waited for everything to finish downloading – a process that only took a minute or two from start to finish, I’d racked up nearly half a megabyte’s worth of download – and that’s with the Orange service’s image compression working away to reduce page sizes.
And performance, as yet, is far from the broadband-busting speed advertised on the modem’s box (if my experience of using the service over several days is anything to go by). Once I’d installed the modem I found I was able to achieve a pretty reliable HSDPA connection in locations in central London and the suburb. In tests in central London and the suburbs, I wasn’t even able to breach the 1.8Mbit/sec barrier, with downloads peaking at 1.5Mbit/sec.
To test the connection speed I tried two downloads in several locations at different times of the day: one 3.1MB zip file from my Gmail account, and a 14.9MB DivX video from the Stage6 website. The fastest performance I experienced was early in the morning in South Woodford (E18), when the files took an impressive 20s and 1m 41s respectively, from click to drop to download. If it was like this all the time, I’d consider switching my home broadband to it, as my “up to 8 Mbit/sec” actually tends to average 2-3Mbit/sec in reality, but it seems that when the network gets busier, performance falls away.
Later in the day and in the same location, the files respectively took 50s and 3m 45s to download, thanks to a much peakier, erratic download rate. In central London, the speeds were similar. Sitting in the City Café on Goodge Street munching on a pain au chocolat and slurping a cappucino I was able to download the files in times of 42s and 3m 18s. During the day, the speed peaked occasionally at 1.4Mbit/sec, but this was only occasional.
Don’t get me wrong, this sort of speed is perfectly usable for general Internet browsing and even downloading fairly large files. It’s also fantastic to have the convenience of being able to do so wherever you happen to be (without an HSDPA signal, the modem automatically drops to 3G or GPRS with EDGE as necessary). However, I was hoping that with speeds of “up to 7.2Mbit/sec” now being advertised on Orange’s website in connection with this modem, I’d be able to achieve faster speeds than this.
As it turns out, Orange is still in the process of upgrading its network to 3.6Mbit/sec, with 7.2Mbit/sec download speeds not on the menu until 2008.
As a piece of hardware, Orange’s little modem worked well throughout the period I had it, and it’s worth having if you want a backup and occasional use mobile system. It’s a bonus that the modem will support 7.2Mbit/sec when it eventually arrives.
But for more intensive use, the tariffs aren’t favourable and if you want fast download speeds, the performance isn’t there yet. And as a result I’d advise you to wait and see how the other networks’ offerings fare before taking the plunge on this one.
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