Recently I just started house-sitting a house with no Internet connection at all. As a member of the generation who just refuse to be out of touch at any point in time, I needed a way to get the Internet. I’ve house-sat at the same place before, and in previous times I’ve experimented with no-contract dialup services (which turn out to be unreliable and expensive), using my mobile phone as a 3G modem (which worked fine until somebody rang or sent an SMS), and scanning the neighbourhood for open wireless networks (of which there are none, sadly).
So, this time, in an effort to remain connected for the duration of the stay (2 weeks), I’ve purchased myself a prepaid wireless broadband USB dongle, courtesy of Telstra. For those of who don’t know how these things work, they are basically a device (looks a little bit like a flash drive) that plugs into your USB port, connects to the mobile phone network, and lets your computer talk to the mobile network as if it was a phone. More specifically, it allows you to access the Internet via the mobile phone network and send and receive SMSs.
The Telstra Prepaid Wireless Broadband dongle costs around $150AUD retail, and with this you get $10 included credit (which isn’t much at all, trust me). For $89 you get 4GB of data usage, which is a fair hunk, and more than enough for most people just doing browsing and so on. It easily lasted me two weeks of browsing, email checking, Skype video calls (about 3 hours a day) and the occasional small download.
The box it comes in is the same rough size as a DVD case, but a bit thicker. It’s mostly empty space, but there is a manual (which actually tells you most of the things you need to know) as well as an extension cable for the dongle (roughly about 50cm long). The rest of it is filled with not-so-environmentally-friendly foam.
Installation was fairly simple, once I read the instruction manual. First of all I just tried plugging in the device (which picked up as a CD-ROM drive, auto installed some drivers, and then brought up a window with a ‘Connect’ button). This didn’t work. After reading the installation manual I found I had to ring Telstra to activate the SIM card. After doing this, the connect button worked as normal, and I could get on the Internet just fine. It works much like a 56k dialup modem, but with a custom interface.
On the night I bought the device, I couldn’t be bothered ringing Telstra to activate the SIM card. So I experimented with taking the SIM card out of my mobile phone (also a Telstra SIM) and stuck it in the dongle (it’s a fairly easy process to change the SIM card). To my surprise, it worked. I was then able to use the significant amount of browsing credit I had on my phone’s SIM card to browse the Internet on my laptop. A handy feature, I think.
Telstra (or rather, ZTE, the manufacturers of the actual device) had a few more handy tricks up their sleeves. On the side of the dongle is a slot to put a MicroSD card into. I wondered what it was for. This is a modem, not a camera. On reading the manual, I read that it is so you can turn the dongle into a USB flash drive as well (though it only supports up to 4GB cards). Cool idea, though I’ll probably never use it.
The software that Telstra have devised to control the dongle (connect, disconnect, send SMS, see credit, etc) is all proprietary custom-written stuff. While I hate it when companies do that (what’s wrong with using Windows’ dialup connection manager?), Telstra have actually managed to do it well this time. The software only starts when you plug in the device, there are limited things to go wrong (but you are still able to change the most important options), and it stays out of your way on the taskbar while you’re browsing the Internet. Compared to some of their older efforts at wireless broadband connection software (which I used to set up as part of my job occasionally), this software is brilliant.
In addition to that, ZTE have actually bothered to sign their drivers. If you’ve read my review of the PreSonus AudioBox, you’ll know how much unsigned drivers piss me off. They have also distributed updates to the drivers via Windows Update. This is a miracle; the number of smaller hardware companies bothering to do this is far too few.
I’ve been using this device for the last two weeks as my sole Internet connection. I was located in the suburbs of Hobart (where mobile coverage is fairly good), though I experienced three dropouts during that time (mostly during the peak evening time). Speed is fairly good. According to speedtest.net, I got 1840kb/s downstream from a server in Melbourne, and 384kb/s upstream.
Overall, I’m very impressed with this device. While the data is hugely expensive for the amount you get, that’s the only problem I can pick with this device. Other than that, it’s a well thought out, well implemented piece of hardware, backed up by some good software and a decent user manual. 4.5 stars.
Update 21/11/09: You might also be interested in my look at various high data-usage mobile phone plans, here.