Rant: mobile broadband speeds, data limits and prices

mobile broadband speedsIt 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…

mobile broadband speeds

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…

mobile broadband speeds

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…

mobile broadband speeds

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…

mobile broadband speeds

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.

Can mobile 4G broadband work for a travel writer? Mostly.

One of the difficulties that I have in living a travel lifestyle is paying for utilities when I’m only home half of the time. Water, gas and heat I can deal with, since those are mostly used upon consumption, but what about internet? Paying $50 a month for service on top of the mobile Boingo/Hotel/Airport wireless is an irritating and costly measure, especially when I’m hit with egregious hotel wireless fees.

My solution came in the form of wireless broadband internet, in my case, 4G+ mobile hotspot provided by Clear (full disclosure: I pay for my own service). Basically, a small device the size of a deck of cards streams 4G service and then converts it to a wireless signal picked up by my computer or mobile phone. Statically, I can leave it in my apartment turned on 24/7 and pretend it’s my home wireless internet.

But if I ever leave home, I can unplug the widget, take it with me and stream the signal on the road. A three hour battery life keeps the data pumping while away from a power source and I can connect up to five devices to the unit at a time. As far as speed, I’m currently downloading at 7Mb/sec, which is plenty of bandwidth for a few Youtube videos and this travel editor’s needs.

The critical point in the whole operation though is reliability. After I first got the 4G+ mobile hotspot in June my service was rife with faults and disconnects. I was only able to connect to the internet some 70% of the time, which is far too seldom to stay in tune to a travel blog. But ever since late August (plus a new modem plus a firmware update), service has stabilized and I’d rank my service at about 97% connectable. That I can deal with.

As for taking the service on the road, Clear doesn’t provide service countrywide but will operate well in larger metropolitan areas. My recent trips to New York, Los Angeles and Dallas have provided 100% coverage, and I’ve even loaned my service out to distraught, roaming wireless users.

To that end, Clear’s 4G+ has provided a great deal of use over the past few months and I have high hopes for continuing the service. Next month my defunct, home internet goes into the dumpster.

Review: Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 and $40 unlimited 3G Broadband2Go plan

virgin mobile mifi 2200 review

This morning, Virgin Mobile flipped the switch on their new $10 and $40 Broadband2Go plans. We mentioned them earlier this week, but as a quick reminder – for $10, you get 100MB of data, or unlimited data for just $40. These new stand-alone plans make Virgin Mobile the cheapest nationwide 3G operator. Best of all, these new plans are contract free, do not require activation fees or a credit check.

The Broadand2Go service is available on the Novatel MiFi 2200 WiFi 3G hotspot or Ovation MC760 USB modem. The USB modem is like every other on the market – you plug it into an open USB slot, install the software, and get online.

The MiFi 2200 is what deserves some attention. Even though this device is not brand new (we reviewed the Verizon Wireless version last year), the Virgin Mobile MiFi is the only prepaid version available in retail stores.
virgin mobile mifi 2200 review

Using the MiFi 2200 involves a one-time activation. The process guides you through a couple of steps, including a few fields for personal information, and picking a Virgin Mobile account password. You then pick a payment method, and activate the modem. The Virgin Mobile network uses Sprint – who actually own Virgin Mobile. The advantage of this is that you’ll have access to a reliable nationwide 3G network.

Connecting to the modem is simple – it broadcasts a WiFi network name called “VirginMobile MiFi 2200” making it easy to locate. Its password is printed on the bottom on a label, but you are free to change that using its configuration pages.

Up to five devices can connect to the MiFi at the same time, which makes it ideal for conference rooms, or sharing a single connection in a hotel room.

virgin mobile mifi 2200 review

I performed several speed tests with the MiFi, and usually saw no more than 700 Kb/s – which is on the low end of what I’d like to see on a 3G connection. As a reminder, the Verizon Wireless version we tested last year easily hit 2.5Mb/s, or over three times faster than on Virgin Mobile.

Of course, all kinds of factors can impact 3G speeds, and Virgin advertises the speeds as “between 600Kb/s and 1400Kb/s” putting my speed tests within their promise. One plus for them is that there does not appear to be any kind of limit on the amount of data you can transfer, nor do they limit your speeds once you exceed a limit. To them, unlimited really does appear to mean unlimited.

Update: I’ve been performing more speed tests since this review went live, and have experienced speeds up to 1300Kb/s several times. As always with broadband – your mileage (and speed) may vary.

Still, the speeds are quite usable for web and email, but they may be a little on the slow side for data intensive apps like video streaming. Bottom line is simple – you are saving $240 when compared to most other mobile broadband solutions.

virgin mobile mifi 2200 review

At $149.99, the Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 is a decent deal (Walmart has it on sale this week for $119.99.) At this price, it becomes a handy tool to carry if you regularly run into $20 WiFi at a hotel and need to get online. The $10 plan offers 100MB for 10 days, which should be enough for a couple of web and email sessions.

The MiFi 2200 charges off MicroUSB, and an AC charger and USB cord are included, as is a protective pouch. If you’d rather not use WiFi to connect to the unit, you can plug it into your laptop and install it as a regular USB broadband modem.

Update: For some reason, Virgin chose to disable the wired USB option on their MiFi.

The Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go MiFi 2200 is available at Virginmobileusa.com and in select retail stores.

Virgin Mobile surprises mobile broadband world with $40 unlimited 3G data plan

In the U.S., the mobile broadband market is relatively boring – very few operators offer prepaid service, almost all of them stick to the same pricing method, and in most cases, there is no such thing as a bargain. Sure, there may be a few exceptions, but when compared to say Europe, the mobile broadband market over here is really dull.

Last year, Virgin Mobile entered the market with the first widely available prepaid broadband solution – but did so with fairly mediocre prices. Earlier this year, they upped their top tier data allowance from 1GB to 5GB, but the price was still the same as all the other big players. Starting soon, their plans are set to change again – but this time, the move is actually quite revolutionary.

For $40, you’ll be able to activate your Virgin Mobile adapter and get 30 days of unlimited data. Low usage customers will get 100MB for just ten bucks. At the moment, your choice of mobile adapter is for their $79.99 USB modem or the $149.99 WiFi hotspot enabling MiFi. And just like with the current offering, their plans are contract free, no credit check required and no recurring charges.

This obviously makes Virgin Mobile the perfect solution for tourists visiting the U.S. or domestic travelers who need a short-term data solution. For $150, plus $40/month, you get yourself a mobile 3G broadband solution that will allow up to five devices to work at the same time, all on a network with excellent coverage and speeds (Virgin Mobile is owned by Sprint.)

In keeping with their smart marketing, Virgin Mobile announced the new plans on Facebook of all places. Their Broadband2Go adapters are available from Virginmobileusa.com or Bestbuy retail stores.

This year in tech – what 2009 will bring for travelers

I’ve already looked back at the best gadgets 2008 had to offer, and in this list I’ll take a look at some of the travel technologies I expect to take off in 2009. Come back next year to either laugh in my face, or remark how amazingly clever I am.

Computer/data bundles on sale

Back in November of last year, Radio Shack started selling a bundle including an Acer Netbook computer, an integrated 3G modem and a 2 year AT&T data subscription. This combo would normally retail for about $430, but the inclusion of the 2 year subscription lowers the price to just $99.

This practice is not new, and bundles of hardware and mobile subscriptions have long been the norm in many European countries. What is new, is that these deals have finally made their way to the USA.

I predict more of these promotions in 2009, and for the deals to become much more widespread. Offering one laptop at just one store is hardly going to change the way we subscribe to mobile data services, but it is a great start.


4G wireless broadband data

Many people are just making their first steps with 3G mobile data, but some of the major players in the market are already hard at work on 4G.

4G wireless data promises even faster speeds than what we currently get from the 3G services on Verizon, Sprint and AT&T.

Building these new networks takes an astounding amount of money, but the largest and most ambitious network already has the support (and money) from companies like Intel, Google, Comcast and Sprint.

By the end of 2009, we should see 4G networks available in about 20 major US cities. The speeds offered by a 4G service like Clear (previously called Xohm) run off a technology called Wi-Max and should reach about 4-8Mbit/s, which is the equivalent of most residential DSL or cable connections. Unlimited service will run between $30 and $50 a month, making it a very viable alternative to slower 3G services.


A new iPhone (nano)?

In December of each year, things in the Apple rumor department start to get kind of wacky. That is mainly because January is when the years largest Apple exposition starts (Macworld). The notoriously tight lipped company apparently “leaks” all kinds of amazing stuff, 95% of which is all bogus, fake or downright stupid. One rumor that keeps popping up this year though, is a smaller iPhone.

This “iPhone Nano” has been leaked by several phone case manufacturers, and has all the die-hard Apple fans foaming at the mouth.

Whether we actually see a tiny iPhone remains to be seen, but it sure does sound like a fun little phone.


More Netbook computers

Netbook computers were the big hit in 2008, and 2009 promises to be even bigger for the little machines. We’ll probably see even lighter machines with more power, and lower prices.

As more and more manufacturers hop on the Netbook bandwagon, companies will start putting a lot more effort into innovation, and sooner or later we’ll finally get the perfect computer.

The first fairly basic Netbook computers launched for about $350, but prices have slowly been dropping, and at the moment that same price will get you a very well equipped machine with a 160GB drive and a powerful 6 cell battery.


Better battery technology

Current notebook computers have about 4000 times the processing power of the first portable computer, but just 2 times the battery life. Each year promises to be the biggest year ever in battery developments, but 2009 actually seems like it might come through for us.

Big players like HP have signed up for a new battery design by Boston Power, which promises battery charge times as low as 30 minutes for an 80% charge as well as higher capacities with the same weight as current cells.

What this means to you and I is that sooner or later we really might get a computer that can last an entire long haul flight on a single battery charge and can be recharged during a short stopover.


Paperless boarding documents

I wrote about the future at the airport last week, one of the items in that futuristic lineup is already here, and will probably become more popular in 2009.

Paperless boarding involves having your airline email you a bar code that can then be used to get through security and onto your flight.

Our very own Grant Martin tested it, and says it sort of works, assuming the airport staff know what they are doing.