December 14, 2005

Hey, where did all the wires go?

Wireless is the new black. Everything is wireless these days – first it was the cordless phone, then the mobile phone, then a few years ago Apple released Airport, the first consumer friendly wireless networking solution (based on the 802.11b protocol), then Intel built wireless into their mobile computer chips and suddenly everything is wireless – well nearly everything.

Wireless networking or specifically the 802.11 protocol requires that you are nearby an access point. These are generally pretty easy to find. Millions of households around the world have wireless routers/modems that allow them to surf or check email from anywhere in their house – these same networks have been built in high-traffic areas like airports, hotels and retail strips and shopping centres. The biggest provider of 802.11 wireless solutions in Australia is Azure - check out their website to see if they offer a wireless hotspot near you. If they don’t there is now another option to add to the list of wireless solutions.

Bigpond has just announced their wireless service that runs on their high-speed 1xEV-DO network. If you are out of range the card automatically switches to their CDMA1X that covers up to 98% of the population. The price of the plans depend on whether you need a mobile card or desktop solution, and also what speed of service you want and how much you plan to download. Plans range between $34.95 per month for the desktop solution to $69.95 for the mobile solution. A desktop modem will cost you $199, and a mobile PCMCIA card is $299 on a 12 month contract. On my Mac installation was very simple, I inserted the CD, ran through the installer, entered my username and password, restarted and I was online.

3’s wireless solution uses the 3G high speed network. 3’s product is targeted only at laptop users. For a $99 cap per month 3 wireless customers receive up to $500 worth of internet usage (about 488Mb). With a $49 minimum spend the PCMCIA card is free, however to buy outright costs $540. Setting the 3 card up was easy and hassle free on my Mac. The 3 card does not require a username and password and can also be used to send and receive SMS messages (Windows only).

Like 3’s service Vodafone have also just released a high speed PCMCIA data card. Manufactured by Novatel Wireless (like 3’s) Vodafone Mobile Connect also uses the newly released Vodafone 3 network. Mobile Connect plans range from $29.95 for 100Mb to an unlimited plan for $99.95 while the card costs $399 (off plan). Set-up was easy, and on Mac OS X the Vodafone card uses the built in Internet Connect application. Like the 3 card, Mobile Connect throttles back to the regular GPRS network if the high speed 3G network is unavailable.

In my testing I achieved slightly higher speeds on the 3G based networks (3 and Vodafone) (17.6Kbps) compared to Bigpond’s network (15.7Kbps) and both reasonable coverage around Melbourne. All three products suffered when inside buildings but Bigpond suffered the most. EVDO reception was good in the inner city but poor outside this area. Once the Bigpond card throttled back to CDMA1X it was basically useless. I was testing the 512K service from Bigpond, if you opt for the cheaper plan (256K) assume you will get half that speed (but the same reception). Another thing to consider is that the 3 capped solution is only available while on the 3 network, if you roam on to the Telstra GPRS network you will need to pay extra. Vodafone Mobile Connect roams on to their GPRS network so you’ll need to think only in terms of data. Like Vodafone, Bigpond provides a fixed amount of data regardless of whether you are connected to the high-speed EVDO or the ultra-slow CDMA network.

All solutions are impressive – and work today. If you are on the road and spend most of your time in the CBD (of all capital cities) and broadband speed internet access is critical then all cards will give you good access. If you mainly travel away from city areas I’d suggest the Vodafone Mobile Connect due to the more flexible network roaming and better value for money on the unlimited data plan.