Rant: mobile broadband speeds, data limits and prices

It isn’t often that we post rants here on Gadling (unless it involves airport security), but recent developments in mobile broadband have annoyed me enough that the time has come to post an angry rant.

Mobile broadband is in many ways a travelers best friend – it replaced dial-up on the road, it powers the data hungry appetite of our smartphones, and it makes it possible for bloggers to post rants no matter where they are.

Mobile data has been around since the mid 90’s – when it launched as a wireless way to get dial-up like speeds.

You had to bring your own ISP, and had to invest in a pricey mobile modem card. In 1997, I handed over $1400 to get my hands on a Nokia phone and PCMCIA modem card.

It quickly became my best friend on the road (and a sure way to burn through my minutes). Then, in the early parts the new millennium, mobile operators began to act as the ISP, selling data packages as add-ons to your mobile subscription.At first, these were used to access mini web sites using WAP or I-MODE. Then, when technology evolved, it allowed mobile phones to connect to laptops using Infra-Red, Serial and then Bluetooth. Speeds increased from 9.6kbit/s to a more reasonable 54kbit/s. Then EDGE and 1x (on CDMA networks) came along, and we sped things up to 144kbit/s. After that, 3G became the new buzzword, and speeds have been increasing ever since.

The latest buzzword is of course 4G, and if you believe the commercials, every one of the mobile operators offers the absolute fastest 4G network in the country. Some have hired attractive women to promote their speeds, others simply point out how they are better than anyone else and how you can “rule the air” with their lightning fast service.

Thing is, even though speeds have increased by almost 4500x, the amount of data your mobile operator lets you use each month has not.

The fraud that is “unlimited mobile broadband data”

Almost every operator in the country offers unlimited mobile broadband data. And at the same time, none of them actually do. When you start going through the fine print of your contract, you’ll come across the “acceptable usage policy” or AUP. The AUP says you can use all the data you want, as long as you keep it under a specific limit. On an unlimited plan, the limit is usually 5GB. Go over this, and you’ll either be cut off, charged more see your data speeds getting throttled.

The throttle of uselessness.

Throttling is the motoring equivalent of driving your supercharged Italian sports car without any wheels. Sure, you still have an impressive engine, and it’ll make plenty of noise, but you won’t really go anywhere.

On T-Mobile for example – once you hit their “unlimited” limit of 5GB, your speeds drop down to “EDGE speeds” – the same speeds you got back in 2002, or about 144kbit/s. At these speeds, anything other than basic web content or email is unusable. Forget streaming music or video – and forget loading a large web site in under a minute.

Speeds have increased, but guess what has not…

As I mentioned earlier – compared to 1998 speeds, the latest technology (HSDPA+ at 42mbit/s on T-Mobile) is 4500x faster. But guess what – even though the Internet has evolved, mobile broadband has been stuck on the 5GB/month limit for over 7 years.

Seven years ago, we didn’t have streaming Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, Slacker or even YouTube. In other words – the entire world has changed, but the mobile operators haven’t realized this.

The limit with no options

This part is the most annoying – once you hit that miserable 5GB limit and get hit with the throttle hammer, you have no options. No matter how much money you offer your operator, you are stuck on the slow train until your new billing month begins.

Sprint and Verizon Wireless are examples of mobile operators that understand how the Internet works – once you go over on their plans, you can pay to stay at full speed. You can do this by switching to a higher plan (up to 10GB) or by paying overages. AT&T Wireless limits you to 5GB, then charges $0.05/MB. Good luck working out the math on that one.

T-Mobile shows how to annoy customers – hit their 5GB limit, and you get a text message with the bad news. Worst of all – their original data transfer limit on Android phones used to be 10GB, but they silently reduced that in 2009.

The mobile operator giveth and the mobile operator taketh away…

This one annoys me more than anything – the operator that lures customers with their promises of limitless data without throttling, only then to change the rules once enough people have signed up.

Virgin Mobile is the clear winner here – when we reviewed their MiFi mobile hotspot, they were the only 3G operator in the country with absolutely no limits on their data. Their terms and conditions didn’t even mention a fair use policy. Then, out of the blue, they decided that 5GB was plenty for everyone, and implemented the dreaded throttling. To top it all off, they even changed those rules on existing customers and keep the service at the same price. Less for the same – that is how mobile operators make their money.

The best way to hide bad changes to your plans? Confuse the heck out of people with your legalese…

T-Mobile in the U.K. shows how to really screw with your customers – they recently told customers that their current 5GB package would drop to 500MB. The message was simple: deal with it, and download your larger stuff at home. After an intense social media outcry, the operator backed down, and changed the new rules so they’d only apply to new customers. Still – the message was clear: you and your downloads suck.

Bottom line – everyone that invested in the product at the time, got screwed by their mobile operator. With the possible exception of banks, no business can pull stunts like that.

Time to burn through your alloted data package will surprise you…

When downloading at top speeds back in 2002, it would take you 64 hours of non stop downloading to burn through your EDGE powered mobile broadband allotment of 5GB. Do the same thing on the newest HSDPA+ networks in 2011 and it’ll be gone in 43 minutes. Speed really does come at a price.

On my cable internet service, I get 250GB/month, and pay $45 for that luxury. On one of my stand-alone mobile broadband subscriptions, I pay $59.99, and get 1/50th of that amount. And while I agree that the technology behind mobile broadband and cable Internet is inherently different, once the networks are in place, there is no good reason to offer one fiftieth of data without a good reason. If this doesn’t show how backwards the operators are, nothing will.

What operators need to do is take a close look at the phones they sell…

In 2002, the average smartphone was a pretty dumb terminal compared to current devices. There was almost no streaming video, no Google Maps, no Qik, no Skype. In fact, the only app that could really downoad a lot of data was the browser – and back then, browsers sucked so much, that you’d have a hard time downloading anything.

As phones improved, we added maps with navigation, video calls and customizable streaming radio stations.

We all know what our phones are capable of – and even though the operators are the ones touting their newest speeds and features – they have apparently failed to realize that people might actually use the speed.

What we really need is for operators to wake up and start offering the speeds that match the Internet. If 5GB was enough in 2007, we really should be offered 10GB or 15GB in 2011.

Product review – CradlePoint PHS300 personal wireless hotspot

Let me open with a warning; this article is full of buzzwords and acronyms, but I promise to try and keep things as simple as possible.

The CradlePoint PHS300 is a pocket wireless internet router. Unlike other routers, that get their Internet access from your cable company or DSL provider, it connects using a cellular broadband modem.

Still with me?

To get access to the Internet using your mobile operator, you have several options; you can purchase a phone with Internet Access built in (like an Apple iPhone). You can also use a mobile phone with “tethering” capability, which involves physically connecting your mobile phone to your computer, or you can purchase a stand alone “cellular modem”.

If you need mobile Internet access on your PC, and you are not within range of a public Wi-Fi hotspot, you’ll have to go with tethering, or a cellular modem. However, both methods have several disadvantages:

  • You usually need to install special software on your computer.
  • The (often expensive) connection can only be used by one person at a time.
  • Reception is often lacking, as your modem will be away from the window, where the cellular signal is usually the strongest.
  • Battery life of your computer is severely impacted when you use a 3G modem card plugged into it.

The Cradlepoint PHS300 fixes these issues by moving the wireless connection away from the PC. To connect to the Internet, you simply plug your compatible phone or cellular modem into the router, turn it on and you instantly turn the combination into a portable battery powered wireless hotspot. Brilliant.Connecting to the Internet is as easy as turning on your laptop (or Wi-Fi enabled smartphone) and connecting to the wireless network name being broadcast by the Cradepoint router, just like connecting to any other Wi-Fi hotspot. Since this is a regular WI-Fi connection, more than one person can connect to the signal, but you’ll of course have to share the speed with anyone else online with you.

The CradlePoint PHS300 router weighs just 4 ounces. The device has 2 connectors, one switch and a couple of LED light indicators. The 2 connectors are for power and for your USB cellular modem/phone. The switch powers the device on (or off) and the LED’s show the power,charging status and the connection status of the Wi-Fi and the cellular modem connections.

In this day and age it is a rarity when I come across a device that really delivers on the whole “plug and play” promise. In my first test, I plugged my modem card into the PHS300, turned the device on, and 30 seconds later I had my laptop connected to the Internet using AT&T. There were no settings to mess with, and I was even able to skip reading the manual.

Your connection is secured using 2 methods; with a common (shared) password, or with regular Wi-Fi security (WEP or WPA). Changing the settings on the device is done through your web browser, but fear not, most of these settings are only for advanced users, if you just want to get online, you won’t have to deal with them. When the situation requires it, you can create a password that can be shared by others, which is perfect if you need a quick and dirty Internet connection for more than one person in a meeting room or airport lounge.

The PHS300 is powered by an internal Lithium-Ion (user replaceable) battery pack, extra batteries are $29.99. Battery life is rated at around an hour and a half with a USB modem, or up to three hours with a tethered phone (which of course has its own battery). Included in the package is a regular AC adapter. A car charger is available directly from CradlePoint for $24.99.

The speed of your connection will of course depend on your modem and the network you are using.

In my first test, I connected to AT&T Wireless, using a Merlin XU870 modem card. In this test, my download speed was a comfortable 1281 kbps. In my second test, I connected to AT&T using a tethered smartphone (an HTC Touch Dual). This time the speed shot up to 1427 kbps, which is faster than many people have on their home broadband connection. I then used the Merlin card with a T-mobile subscription, and only reached 152kbps (T-mobile does not have 3G in my area yet).

For my final test, I connected to Sprint using my HTC Mogul smartphone. Let me say up front that CradlePoint fully admit that this phone is not the most reliable option for tethering, as Windows Mobile is considered too buggy to always keep a connection active. Despite the warning from CradlPpoint, I did not experience any loss of connection. The only difference between using a modem card, and tethering, is that I had to manually enable the tethering setting on my phone.

Here are the speeds I reached when using the CradlePoint PHS300 with my various phones:

  • AT&T 3G with an HTC Touch Dual: 1427kbps
  • AT&T 3G with a Merlin XU870 card: 1218kbps
  • Sprint EVDO Rev.A with a Sprint Mogul: 831kbps
  • T-mobile EDGE with a Merlin XU870: 152kbps

Of course, these numbers are fairly meaningless to most people, so let me just say that the speed on AT&T and Sprint was perfectly acceptable for most Internet applications, on the AT&T connection, things just felt much faster, pages loaded almost instantly and I was even able to view a couple of Youtube video clips, albeit with a slight delay at the beginning where the player buffers the clip.

CradlePoint offers several other models of cellular broadband routers including the CTR500 which has an internal Expresscard slot for the modem card as well as a network port for connecting your laptop through a wired connection.

All in all I am immensely impressed with the CradlePoint. At $179 it is the perfect solution for anyone who has dealt with the buggy connection software from their mobile operator, or who has watched their laptop battery die in an hour when they were surfing the web from the airport lounge. With most mobile operators charging between $60 and $80 per month for a wireless broadband connection, frequent users of paid hotel or airport Wi-Fi will easily be able to save a substantial amount every month. The biggest advantage of course, is being able to turn this device on, and have instant wireless Internet access for more than one person.