Unbeatable value as part of a BT Total Broadband package, and still remarkably inexpensive when bought on its own.
BT’s Mobile Broadband package for consumers should get you online from anywhere in the UK – ideal for when you need internet access on the go.
This package is actually a hardware and service bundle, consisting of a dongle plus 18-months of mobile broadband access, with 1GB of data included per month. Exceeding this limit will cost you 4p per megabyte or £10 per gigabyte. The stylish black and silver dongle should look good when plugged into most modern laptops.
The service uses Vodafone’s mobile broadband network, whose fast 3G services – typically up to 3.6Mbit/s – cover around 80 per cent of the UK population. However, there are huge geographical areas that still have only GPRS coverage, with speeds up to just 48Kbit/s. Before buying, you should check the coverage in your area at http://maps.vodafone.co.uk/coverageviewer.
BT’s Connection Manager software is preloaded on to the dongle, which means you just need to plug it in to a USB port and it will be installed automatically along with the relevant drivers. This process ran smoothly on all the laptops with which we tested it.
When BT’s service launched a few weeks ago, software was only available for Windows, but there are now Mac OS drivers, too. You can also use the service with Linux distributions such as Ubuntu, as the dongle is a Huawei E180, which is a widely supported 3G modem.
Connection Manager is a newer version of the Access Manager software we reviewed with BT’s business mobile broadband offering at the beginning of the year. It manages all your network connections – 3G, WiFi or Ethernet. For WiFi connections, it can manage different profiles for different locations, allowing you to set up access at home and work. You can also enter your BT FON login details, which you get with a BT Total Broadband package. This will allow you to connect to the WiFi hotspots of other BT FON users.
The software will ask if you want to connect to the 3G network when you move out of range of a WiFi hotspot, but it can’t manage a transparent switchover. This may be bothersome if you’re in the middle of downloading a file, as the download will be cut, so it’s best to use a download manager that allows you to resume partial downloads, like the one built in to the Firefox web browser.
We like the fact that Connection Manager tracks your usage and clearly shows whether you’re connected via GPRS or 3G, along with a signal strength indicator. Our only real gripe is that the ‘Auto connect on startup’ option doesn’t work as it should; the software keeps asking ‘Do you want to connect to BT Mobile?’ instead of just establishing a connection.
Performance, as with any 3G service, will depend on your location, including the distance from the nearest mobile antenna. In our eight weeks of testing, we found that speeds could vary hugely, with pages sometimes loading as fast as our 8Mbit/s home broadband, but at other times feeling more like a 56Kbit/s modem. Reassuringly, in our last broadband survey, the Vodafone network scored well against its competitors. 3G services such as this are usually fine for web browsing and email, but you won’t want to download any large files.
New customers signing up to BT Total Broadband option 1 or 2 have to pay a one-off £50 fee for the dongle, whereas anyone choosing option 3 pays £10. Existing BT Total Broadband customers can add a dongle to their package if they’re within the first two months of their contract, and those within two months of the end of their contract can sign up by renewing their contract for 18 months. Anyone in between these periods must buy the dongle for £130. Mobile Broadband is excellent value if you can switch to BT Total Broadband as a new customer, as you could pay as little as 56p per month for mobile internet access. Even if you buy the dongle for £130, which includes the same 1GB usage limit for 18 months, this equates to just £7.22 per month. That’s cheaper than comparable standalone packages from 3 (£10 per month for Broadband Lite), Virgin (£15 per month) and Vodafone (£14.10 per month for 3GB of data) over the same period. Light or occasional users should note that Orange has launched a new tariff at £4.89 per month.