Running costs

We’re constantly told that the biggest rip-off in the computer industry is the inkjet cartridge, but I think mobile data charges run a very close second. Connecting to your office or the internet while on the road is increasingly important for business users – indeed a principal rationale for this very column – but, despite huge demand and uptake, the economies of scale never seem to materialise. Whether you’re consuming Wi-Fi over a latte in the coffee shop or checking your emails on your smartphone via GPRS, you’re probably paying a scandalous price, especially if you’re buying mobile data access on an ad hoc basis.

Running costs

Pop into your local Starbucks and do a wireless scan, and you’ll probably find a T-Mobile hotspot lurking behind the counter. Check the price list, though, and you’ll see the data is almost as expensive as the coffee – signing up for one hour will set you back a fiver. That may turn you cold on the hot-spot and persuade you to try connecting via your phone or mobile data card: GPRS is plenty fast enough for casual browsing and emails, and fast UMTS services (more commonly known as 3G) are now available in most urban locations. But, before you do, check those prices again. Most mobile operators charge you around £2 for each megabyte and, in these days of HTML mail with huge attachments and Flash-driven websites, eating a megabyte doesn’t take long.

Comparing the price of a typical cheap broadband landline with these Wi-Fi and GPRS costs will bring tears to your eyes. A low-cost ADSL service might have a 10GB usage cap and costs around £15 per month, which, if my maths is correct, amounts to 2p per hour, or 0.15p per megabyte. So, how come mobile networks can get away with charging £5 and £2 for almost the same product? No doubt they’ll tell you stories about infrastructure investment, neglecting the fact that broadband operators have infrastructure to pay for too. Cynics will suggest that costs are kept this high to pay for the astronomical bids the networks made for their 3G licences, but even that doesn’t really hold water. Mobile data was already this expensive (possibly dearer) long before that 3G auction.

So, what do you do if you need data on the move? One good way to bring down costs is to buy your access as part of a bundle deal – Wi-Fi is considerably cheaper if you buy it by the month rather than the hour, while GPRS/3G prices tumble if you tack a few monthly megabytes onto your mobile contract. But where are the best deals? It’s a bit of a jungle out there, and finding the most cost-effective solution isn’t easy. I’ve recently been through this very exercise, so I can give you a few tips and helpful pointers.

Let’s start with Wi-Fi. First, don’t rely on free or “borrowed” Wi-Fi access. Parts of the country do have zero-cost hotspots available, sometimes through genuinely free providers such as Loose Connection and Pier to Pier here in Brighton. Sometimes slightly dodgy connections are possible via companies and individuals who leave their wireless routers “open”, either with deliberately altruistic intent or, more likely, because they didn’t read the security chapter of the manual. Either way, you can’t rely on this type of access – that one critical time when you really need a connection (to grab an important email or reboot a fallen server), there’ll be no free access point in sight. Been there, done it, got a drawer full of T-shirts…

No, the key to both reasonable Wi-Fi costs and availability is roaming. Of the three main hotspot operators in the UK – BT Openzone, T-Mobile and The Cloud – BT and T-Mobile sell only their own access, but The Cloud offers third-party access for several other providers, including BT Openzone but also the likes of O2, Vodafone, Boingo and RoamPoint. You’ll find The Cloud hotspots mainly in pubs and hotels. Some of these operators have agreements that allow customers of other networks to use their hotspots, which is great because it means you don’t have to sign up with all three. Unfortunately, though, not all operators have roaming agreements with each other – there’s no provision for T-Mobile customers to use The Cloud hotspots, or for O2 customers to use T-Mobile. Dig deeper into this messy matrix and you’ll find that one company has roaming arrangements covering all the major hotspot providers, and that’s BT Openzone. Since they can roam onto both T-Mobile and The Cloud, Openzone subscribers get a much better choice of network access places than users of the other networks.

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