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Sunday, 25 May 2008 08:10

3 doesn't ditch dongle, just releases new one

Don’t want the ‘soap-on-a-rope’ 3.5G mobile broadband USB modem dongle dangling from the back of your laptop or desktop PC? Three releases a new one that looks like a USB memory stick – but if it doesn’t fit properly you might need a short USB extension cable anyway. So much for wire free!

CNET Australia’s original article on the new 3 Mobile broadband Internet USB key was entitled ‘3 ditches the dongle’, but given that their new USB key is still a dongle, and someone must have mentioned that to them, they’ve renamed their article ‘3’s wire-free USB’.

Problem is, that headline could be wrong too – especially if the new USB mobile broadband key doesn’t fit into your USB port because there are other things plugged in around the port that make it not fit properly.

In that case, you’ll need one of those short USB extension cables – one with a male USB connector on one end, and a female on the other – to use the device properly.

Still, many people will be able to just stick the new USB key in to a free USB port, thus eliminating the cable altogether – but does it really matter? No. What matters is that you are connected to 3.5G mobile broadband Internet.

One benefit of the new USB modem is that it is 7.2Mbps HSDPA enabled out of the box. Sadly, you won’t be able to take advantage of that speed on the 3 Mobile network, or at least, not yet, because the network is still being upgraded to 7.2Mbps status. That means speeds of 500Kbps to 1.5Mbps today, as it is still a 3.6Mbps network.

However, when the 7.2Mbps update does officially launch, the USB key will work at speeds of around 500Kbps to 3Mbps – and potentially up to 5Mbps – real world speeds, without needing any firmware updates.

There’s no mention that the key is also HSUPA capable, as some of Telstra’s modems are, with maximum speeds of up to 1.9Mbps and real world upload speeds of 250Kbps to 1.3Mbps. That likely means that 3 Mobile’s new broadband Internet key maxes out at a maximum upload speed of 384Kbps.

I checked with 3 Mobile’s PR company about owners of the old ‘soap-on-a-rope’ USB modem to see if it would be the beneficiary of a firmware update to also bestow 7.2Mbps speed compatibility in the future, and was told that yes, a software upgrade would be forthcoming – which is good news for existing owners.

So, what does the USB key cost, and what does 3 Mobile have to say about its release? Please read on to page 2.

The 3 Mobile Broadband Internet Key itself costs $10 per month over 24 months for customers signing up to the $15 per month plan giving 1GB of monthly download.

However, customers signing up to the $29 per month 3GB plan or the $49 per month 6GB plan will only pay $5 per month for the USB key over that 24 month period.

The press release seems to indicate that if you’re existing 3 Mobile customer, you can pay only $5 per month for the key if you want any of the plans, which must include the 1GB plan – but do double check with them first on that if you are an existing customer and only want 1GB of download per month.

Coming in black or white, Noel Hamill, 3’s Director Sales, Marketing and Product, is excited, as any marketing manager always is when new products are launched.

Hamill, likely no relation to Mark of Star Wars fame, said: “Business take up of mobile broadband is growing rapidly because small business owners and executives want to get online on the move, without an expensive plan and with a device that’s really easy to use and looks good.  Style is getting to be an important factor, just like it is with a mobile phone.”

Well, style is important, sure, but let’s face it: it doesn’t really make that much difference when we’re talking about mobile broadband Internet access. Of greater importance that how stylish the damn key looks is the cost of monthly access, and this is where 3 Mobile does have an advantage.

Sadly, that advantage is lost on those who travel to rural or regional areas where the cost to roam onto Telstra’s 2.5G GPRS/EDGE network is $1.65 per megabyte.

Given that Optus and Vodafone don’t force users to pay extra fees when roaming onto 2G networks, and indeed are building out 3.5G HSDPA networks across Australia, if you’re a heavier user than 1GB per month or regularly travel, 3’s mobile broadband deals may not be for you.

Also, with Vodafone’s 5GB for $39 offer over 24 months, which is good value, gives you the USB modem free – no $10 or $5 per month charges over 24 months to worry about.

But if you are primarily a city based user, 3’s pricing certainly is competitive and has helped bring prices down across the industry, something which 3 must be acknowledged for snowballing into effect.

Will Optus and Vodafone users need to buy a new 3.5G HSDPA key when Optus and Vodafone’s rollout to a 900Mhz 3.5G HSDPA network in rural and regional areas is complete? Please read on to page 3.

Well, according to the ‘device details’ of the “soap-on-a-rope” 3.5G HSDPA modem that Vodafone is selling, it only works on the 2100MHz frequency for HSDPA.

It does support 900/1800/1900MHz frequencies too, but only for 2.5G GPRS, NOT 3G. Seeing as Optus has the same modem, they’ll probably be in the same boat.

Meaning that it seems very like that Vodafone and Optus users will need to upgrade their mobile broadband USB devices – at a cost of $200-$300 – if they want to travel to rural and regional areas and use 3.5G broadband, given that Optus and Vodafone are building 900MHz 3.5G networks, and their existing devices don’t seem to have 900MHz 3.5G HSDPA compatibility today.

Telstra, whose prices are highest, have a nationwide network now, with USB devices that work at high speeds and on Telstra’s 850MHz 3.5G HSDPA frequency in almost any populated part of Australia, so no new modems need to be purchased – but you’re definitely paying big money in comparison for that convenience.

Back to 3. They now have three HSDPA-enabled mobile broadband devices, the 3 Mobile Broadband Internet Key, the 3 “soap-on-a-rope” Mobile Broadband USB and the 3 Mobile Broadband PC Express Card.

You can visit 3 Mobile’s website for more information.


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.



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