Why 3G broadband can be better and cheaper than ADSL

An interesting aside is that in the USA, T-Mobile markets HSPA+ as “4G”, a ploy allowed by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which states that the term 4G can now be applied “to other evolved 3G technologies providing a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third-generation systems now deployed”. Here in the UK, our networks mostly seem to be reserving the term 4G for LTE and/or WiMAX based networks. Other than 3, that is, which recently described its HSPA+ service as 4G, before swiftly withdrawing the statement after being exposed by the PC Pro website.

Why 3G broadband can be better and cheaper than ADSL

So can an HSPA+ service replace wired broadband? Absolutely. This being a Real World Computing column, I felt obliged to put my money where my mouth is, so for two weeks I’ve switched off my normal broadband router at home, and the family and I have been using the latest E586 MiFi device from 3. This is a neat gadget about the size of a small mobile phone. It runs from a rechargeable battery, but 3 supplies a charging station so tasteful that I left it plonked in that for the two-week test.

I’m slightly amazed that things have progressed this quickly

The device contains a SIM slot, and during my tests I tried both a normal 3 Pay Monthly data SIM and one of those ultra-cheap DiDa mobile SIMs I mentioned recently (which have sadly now been withdrawn). Both worked well. In addition to a mobile receiver, the MiFi also contains a full wireless router that provides a 802.11n Wi-Fi service, and despite the lack of any external antennae I was pleasantly surprised by its performance – I could see the Wi-Fi signal from anywhere in my house when the device was plugged into its dock.

When running on its internal battery, the range wasn’t quite as good; I’d guess because it drops down into a lower power mode. The router supports MAC address security, port forwarding and the rest, and it really is a complete broadband service in a tiny package. The last time I tried a MiFi device was around four years ago, and compared to this it’s chalk versus cheese.

During my two-week test, we used all of our Wi-Fi connected devices as normal – laptops, games consoles, internet radios – and they all worked flawlessly. From my laptops, I could VPN into my office and client systems, and from our TV we could happily watch hours of HD content via BBC iPlayer, with no drop-outs or buffering. Using various speed checkers, I saw my download speed hover around 10Mbits/sec, while uploads were around 2.5Mbits/sec, and ping times a respectable 35ms. That’s better performance than many people get from ADSL.

The most telling aspect of this two-week test was that Mrs O didn’t notice that anything had changed, and she’s normally ultra-sensitive to our broadband running slowly – if she tries to watch one of her favourite YouTube videos and it freezes or starts to buffer, she’ll assume it’s something I’ve done (and usually she’s right!). But for the two weeks of testing, we had near-perfect broadband service.

One feature that we didn’t use during the testing is the microSD slot in the E586. The idea of this is that you can insert a memory card (up to 32GB), but unlike previous MiFi models, this one doesn’t appear to offer any network access to the files on such a card: you need to plug the MiFi into your PC using a USB lead to read or write to the card, which frankly is a bit rubbish.

Of course, it goes without saying that you’ll need decent reception to make use of mobile broadband, although unlike a dongle, the MiFi doesn’t demand a strong mobile signal right next to your PC. You can position it at the place in your house with the best reception – perhaps near an upstairs window, or even the loft – and then connect using Wi-Fi.

I’m slightly amazed that things have progressed this quickly. A few years ago I wouldn’t have touched mobile broadband with a barge pole, yet here I am recommending it as both better and cheaper than ADSL, at least for some people.

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