Business buyer's guide to mobile broadband

Business travellers know that staying productive on the road requires serious connectivity. That's where 3G (third-generation) data services come in. By adding a mobile broadband connection to your notebook, these wireless wonders give you anytime access to the office, the Internet, and the world. Here's what you need to know to get your notebook online from anywhere.

Technology

Unlike the US, Australia now only has one main type of mobile broadband technology: HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access).

Whereas earlier Australian mobile broadband services used slower EDGE or GPRS technology, 3G broadband services have resulted in faster uptake from consumers thanks to faster speeds.

The launch of Telstra’s HSDPA Next G network in late 2006 sparked the move to faster mobile services, but the rest of the carriers — Optus, Vodafone, 3 Mobile and Virgin Mobile — have since launched, upgraded and are continuing to upgrade their 3G networks.

HSDPA hardware currently offers theoretical data rates of up to 7.2Mbps per second, but this will continue to increase. In 2009, Telstra plans to deploy Enhanced HSPA (eHSPA) meaning Australian will soon be able to experience peak mobile broadband speeds of 21Mbps.

A Look at 3G Devices

Your notebook's add-on slot will dictate the right type of 3G card for you. Here's a look at the available options.

PC Card: Most notebooks made in the last decade feature a PCMCIA Type II, or PC Card, slot. About the width of a credit card, a PC Card slides into the side of your notebook and draws power from your notebook's battery.

ExpressCard/34: Smaller than a PC Card, an ExpressCard/34 device also slips into the side of your notebook. ExpressCard is more common on newer notebooks and will eventually replace the PC Card slot.

USB: These days Universal Serial Bus is, as its name would seem to imply, nearly universal on PCs and Macs. While many ultra light notebooks may not offer either a PC Card or ExpressCard slot, you'd be hard-pressed to find any modern computer lacking a USB port. USB data adapters are a great choice if you're planning to use a single device with a variety of different computers. The most common mobile broadband solutions for consumers use a USB connection, including models from Telstra, Vodafone, Optus and 3 Mobile.

Built-in: As 3G Internet connectivity has grown, so have the options for delivering it to your PC. Many major manufacturers, including Dell, HP, Lenovo, Panasonic, Sony, and Toshiba, now sell laptops with built-in mobile broadband adapters for HSDPA. Built-in mobile broadband typically adds about $300 to a notebook's retail price.

Carriers

Telstra: Telstra's Next G wireless network, which was turned on October 6, 2006, is the world's fastest national mobile broadband network, claiming to cover 99 per cent of the Australian population. Currently operating at theoretical speeds of up to 7.2Mbps, the introduction of eHSPA in 2009 will allow speeds of up to 21Mbps. Telstra has the widest coverage and the fastest speeds, but is known to charge a premium price when compared to competitors.

Vodafone: Vodafone’s 3G HSDPA network currently covers metropolitan areas in Sydney, Central Coast, Melbourne, Canberra, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast, and all major international airports in Australia. Vodafone expects to extend mobile broadband coverage to 95 per cent of the population in early 2009, and will then provide speeds of up to 14.4Mbps. In addition to its own mobile broadband devices, Vodafone also partners with a number of notebook manufacturers including Lenovo and HP.

Optus: The Optus 3G/HSDPA network currently covers approximately 80% of the Australian population, though Optus has promised network coverage beyond 98% by December 2009. The network is currently capable of speeds of up to 7.2Mbps, but will increase this to 28Mbps in late 2009 and 42Mbps by mid 2010.

3 Mobile: 3, under the Hutchinson Telecoms group, was the first to launch a 3G mobile network in April 2003. 3’s coverage extends to 96% of Australia's population. Outside of its 3G coverage areas, 3 Mobile customers can roam to the Telstra network, though at increased rates.

Virgin Mobile: Virgin is a wholly owned subsidiary of Optus so its network coverage and quality is identical to Optus. The only difference is price, as Virgin is known for competitive pricing plans in both the mobile phone and mobile broadband space.

Plans

Unlike the US, mobile broadband services in Australia tend to offer somewhat confusing plans, with a variety of costs depending on monthly download limit, additional usage, international roaming charges, initial outlay for equipment and contract length.

As a rule of thumb, Telstra tends to be the most expensive, though it provides the fastest speeds and widest coverage. As an example, its latest Turbo 7+ Series USB Modem attracts at initial outlay of $439, though this cost is reduced when combined with one of Telstra’s wireless broadband plans. Telstra plans range from $39.95 for 400MB data quota for $299, to 15GB of data for $169 per month, with the modem’s initial outlay reduced to $149.

On the other end of the scale, 3 Mobile tends to be one of the most competitive in this space, with plans starting at $15 per month for 1GB of data and range up to $29 (3GB), $39 (6GB) and $49 (7GB) plans over 24 months. All plans charge an additional 10 cents per megabyte for any additional usage, and $1.65 per megabyte for international roaming usage.

In the middle, Vodafone’s mobile broadband plans start at $29.95 per month for 1GB of data. $49.95 per month gives you a reasonable 5GB of data, while both plans charge an additional 10 cents per megabyte for additional use.

Optus was the first carrier in Australia to introduce pre-paid pricing plans for mobile broadband. A starter pack ($199) gives you a USB modem and 2GB worth of data, with recharges available for 2GB ($30), 3GB ($40), 5GB ($50), 6GB ($70) and 9GB ($100). Strangely, the first 30MB of usage per day will be charged at 10MB, with usage after this counted in 10MB increments.

Additionally, Virgin Mobile offers 5GB of data for just $39 with no excess usage charges (speed drops to 64Kbps). Virgin also offers a pre-paid billing system, with the USB modem available for $179. Pre-paid credit vouchers can then be purchased for 1GB ($15), 2GB ($30), 5GB ($50) and 8GB ($100) with a 30 day expiry on the 1GB and 2GB vouchers, and 60 and 90 days expiry on the 5GB and 8GB vouchers respectively.

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