3g broadband

Unlike most techies, I use a very basic mobile phone. I use it for making calls and sending/receiving texts mostly and you don’t need a clever phone to do that. However, recently I’ve ended up using a 3g mobile phone.

In NZ, like many places there is a GSM based network (run by vodafone) that now offers UMTS and HSDPA. These are often called ‘3g’ technologies, but I must admit it is reasonably confusing. However, the data costs of using these technologies in NZ is very very high. It’s basically pointless unless you’re in business or very wealthy.

However, recently I’ve been doing some work in Australia and for whatever reasons the place where I was staying did not have broadband (they did have broadband, but the ISP they use seems to require them to have no ADSL for up to 20 days while they plug and unplug some cables for naked DSL. Go figure). Given that I need broadband to do my work, I organised a loan of a 3g router. Basically a little box (called ethermax I think) that contained a 3g modem and some sort of ethernet router. I just plugged in a flylead, turned the thing on and I had broadband. It was connected to Telstra’s NextG network.

I was quite impressed by how good this really was. Sure latency can vary enormously, but in general doing the usual stuff of web surfing, send/receive email, ssh sessions, even VNC sessions worked very well. If anything a badly running ADSL connection in NZ has far worse latency than this thing. I didn’t really test download speeds or anything like that.

I ended up returning the 3g router, and bought myself a Telstra Prepaid Samsung A411 phone. It’s locked to Telstra which sort of sucks, but it was cheaper (AU$149) than the cheapest 3g modem I could get, and so far as data charges on prepay go in Aus (all the other options seem to be 24 month contracts … and I’m only in Aus for a month or two) , it’s sort of a least worst option. Telstra lets you buy ‘data bundles’. In my case I bought a 1GB bundle that lasts 30 days. For that ‘luxury’ I pay AU$89. Sure if you’re on a 24 mth plan then you pay less than that, but that’s not an option for me. I was bit confused by how these data bundles work. First you have to put $89 of credit on your prepay balance, then purchase a ‘1gb plus pack’ using your credit. This would have been much easier if Telstra accepted my NZ credit card, but sadly I had to run down to the shops and buy some prepay vouchers.

Anyway, this phone works really well. It’s a bit vague what the max transfer speed is supposed to be as it only does UMTS. I thought I saw somewhere that it only goes to 1.8Mbps, but I’m sure other countries have 384kbps as the max for UMTS. Confusing. Anyway, it works great for what I need it to do. It came with a USB cable, and I only use the phone as a modem. In fact, as a modem the phone just shows up as a USB serial device and is dead easy to get going under linux. I found this note on the whirlpool forums describing how to set it up. The USB cable also charges it which is good if you’ve ever had nokia phones where they won’t charge via USB.

Of course, you really need to be careful about your usage with a 1GB limit. I’ve never had such a low limit on any kind of internet connection that I can remember. I did some simple math and thought 1000MB is about 33MB a day, so I try to limit myself to under 33MB each day. That is a real struggle. If all I did was SMTP/POP mail then it would be easy. That stuff uses hardly any traffic, but modern websites chew through the traffic. I’ve now even tried turning off image downloading to cut back. You also need to be careful of pages that constantly reload themselves (eg. a Big Brother status screen) and if you’re using windows, make sure it doesn’t try to download any updates. The initial view of a VNC screen will suck some traffic, but so long as you don’t have much activity in theVNC window, the traffic use is quite low.

This phone has reminded me of my dialup days and the AT command set, as you basically use AT commands when talking to the phone’s modem. One oddity I discovered is that when you power the phone off, you can still talk to it via the USB serial interface. Odd.