3G and HSDPA Data Cards for business

Access to the Internet, office systems and email while "on the go" has become a need for many business travellers. While the wireless hotspot revolution has been underway for some time, they are still not ubiquitous. Hotel access is also not a given even in Europe although the US is generally well provisioned unless you end up in a very cheap motel.

The main UK operators, O2, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone have all been providing data cards for many years. Initially these cards supported GPRS, then 3G and now they will work over the High Speed Data Packet Access (HSDPA) networks, often referred to as Mobile Broadband or 3G Broadband.

IT PRO decided to put 3G Data Cards from the leading UK operators to the test to see how they performed in five cities and one airport.

3G cards are most likely to be used by business users to connect to their office while in hotels or at home. To see how widespread support across mainland UK is, IT PRO decided on five cities and one airport at which to test cards. The locations chosen were:

London - Cornhill, near the Bank of England.

Cardiff - Queen Street near Junction with Friary.

Birmingham - Ludgate Hill near Junction with Queensway.

Manchester - Back George Street.

Edinburgh - Lothian Street near Sheraton Grand Hotel.

Heathrow T2 - Costa Coffee between departure and arrivals gate.

The Tests

The tests were designed to simulate typical user scenarios.

1.Installation. Getting the card to install and doing pre-trip tests.

2.Internet. Opening up a link to the internet and browsing a few pages including the BBC News and Sports pages.

3.Speed. Connecting to www.adslguide.org and running its independent speed test. As these cards are sold as being 3G Broadband, we decided on this as a good independent test.

4.Exchange. Connecting to an Exchange server using a web browser and sending/reading email over an Outlook Web Access link. To prevent problems with encrypted connections we chose to do this over http rather than https.

5.IMAP. Connecting to an IMAP mail server using Microsoft Outlook, downloading mail, synchronising folders and sending/receiving email.

6.POP3. Connecting to a POP3 mail server using Microsoft Outlook, downloading mail, synchronising folders and sending/receiving email.

7.VPN Access. Connecting to a corporate network using a Sonicwall firewall and using the Sonicwall Global VPN client to connect to a desktop and server to read files.

None of these tests can be considered in the remotely complex or out of the norm for users.

3G Cards

Each of the operators was given a minimum of five weeks notice, via their press offices, of the tests that we were intending to conduct. This was done via email to ensure that they had the best opportunity to provision services. Despite this both Vodafone and O2 delivered newer cards to us on the morning of the actual test.

In the case of Vodafone this was due to us receiving the wrong card and thus, the company wanted to ensure we had the latest model. O2 changed the card because they had just ceased sale of the original model supplied on the day before the test was due totake place. Thus, O2 wanted to ensure that we had the card that we due to go on sale at the time of publication. Not unreasonable but a little more notice would have been welcome.

The cards that we took were:

O2: Sierra Wireless AirCard 850 data card

Orange Business Everywhere: Option GlobeTrotter GT 3+ EMEA 3G/EDGE data card

T-Mobile Web'n'walk Card with WLAN: Option GlobeTrotter GT Fusion+ EMEA 3G/EDGE data card

Vodafone Mobile Connect: Option GlobeTrotter GT3+ 3G/EDGE data card

These are the current shipping cards from the operators and are available to any user.

Hardware and Software

Each of the cards had its own laptop with a fresh installation of Windows XP and Office 2003. All of the service packs and security patches as of the 8th October 2006 had been applied to the computers and all were tested before we set out using their built in wireless and wired connections. This was so that we could be sure that the laptops were working in a "normal" office environment.

Each card was put through a series of pre-tests where it was installed onto a laptop that had another 3G card installed. This was to see if there was any co-habitation and how easy it would be to install/uninstall or change operator.

An interesting problem that came up during the preparation for these tests was that of PCMCIA ports. Of the last eight laptops that I have tested, none of them had a PCMCIA port. Instead, the manufacturers are beginning to prefer the PC Express clot which seems to have caught the operators and data card manufacturers out.

At the low end of the laptop market, and this includes some of the sub-notebooks, there is no slot at all, just extra USB ports. In the mid range, where there is a slot, it is almost always a PC Express slot. At the high end, the PCMCIA card still exists but the dual slot machines are increasingly becoming PC Express and PCMCIA dual slots.

So far, none of the UK Operators have approved use of any of the small number of PC Express cards on the market. Vodafone and Dell have announced a range of laptops which will support HSDPA and which have a SIM card slot. This should make life easier for mobile workers.

The only real solution for PCMCIA cards came from Elan Digital Systems who have a range of PCMCIA to USB adapters. These are designed to take 3G data cards from multiple vendors and allow you to access them through the USB port. The problem is that each vendor does different things with their cards so there is no single universal adapter.

At present there are two, the U-111 and the U-132. Each works with a different set of cards and Elan has a list on their website as to which card will work with which adapter. They will shortly ship the U-142 which will extend the range of supported cards. Before the test started, we have a U-111 and a U-132 which we tested. Problems with the drivers from O2 meant that we couldn't use the Merlin U530/U560 cards that they provided. However, we were able to get hold of an old T-Mobile U530 with drivers. This proved a success in the Elan U-111.

The U-132 we tested with a Vodafone Mobile Connect card and it worked perfectly. Unfortunately, this was an older Fusion GT 3G Quad card where the serial number started with the letters GL. When we tried the newer Vodafone card or any of the other Fusion cards here nothing worked. This is because the two letters at the start of the serial number are critical to whatever Fusion has done with the card.

The result is that if you want to use a 3G data card with a laptop that doesn't have a PCMCIA port you have a problem. Elan is the only vendor that is shipping PCMCIA to USB converters. Until the operators decide on what PC Express cards or ship their own USB adapters, do not change your laptop. Some operators expect to have some USB support before Christmas but no-one would provide a definitive date while PC Express support will come sometime in 2007. Not a happy solution.