As it turns out through work I had some experience of Vodafone's 3G Mobile Connect service which is basically a nice fast 384kbps broadband connection delivered via UMTS 3G. Of course this isn't new and his beeriness general Amnesia aka the G-man, has had this for awhile and he might have even done a blog if I could be arsed to search for it. But whereas said G-man might comment on such important issues such as what colour the card is and how a customer service representative failed to respond adequetly "DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?", all wrapped up in a flowery if somewhat indecipherable prose - I think there's probably ample room left for me to add my thoughts to this subject.
Rambling aside, the important fact here is that you can get one of these cards for basically free if you get the unlimited price plan and pay some small amount if you're on a lower tarif. Or you can currently get one free with a laptop from various system builders as there's a promotion on right now. More importantly still, Vodafone have put an axe to the ludicrous data rate charges and come up with a basic three tier system as follows:
- PAYG - Â£2 per megabyte
- Mobile Connect 250 - 250MB per month - Â£25 per month
- Mobile Connect Unlimited - 1GB per month - Â£45 per month
Now interestingly the web site I linked above doesn't mention the PAYG scheme but it does exist. Obviously Â£2 a megabyte is goddamn stupid but there you go. The price plan options are a 12-month contract since you generally got the hardware subsidized.
What you get is a sort of fat DVD case with a manual and the card. The PCMCIA card has a fat red thing (branding ahoy) that sticks out the side with irritatingly bright lights that flash (constantly) red for a GPRS connect or blue for 3G. You got to install their software as well but it seems to have improved loads, from what I've heard. You can send/receive SMS messages and see the signal strength of GPS and GPRS connections. It'll also show you your usage in megabyes, and this you need because if you go above the allocation on the price plans - you go into Â£2 a megabyte territory. Nice eh?
What's it like though? Pretty good actually. The big difference I noticed from using a GPRS connection on a phone bluetoothed to a laptop was that when the signal died, it didn't really care. Yeah my IRC locked up, web pages didn't work for a bit, but soon as there was signal again it carried on. It also seemlessly switched back and forth between GPRS and 3G. It's also pretty nippy and even though I'm a good way out in the sticks, I've got a workable 3G connection if I place the laptop on a window cill. I'm actually using it as the gateway for the entire LAN now so we can get net access from the other PCs.
However there's one cheeky thing I discovered, purely by accident. I was lamenting at the low quality of images I was seeing on my coppermine picture gallery and then noticed there was this strange alt-text tool-tip type thing on images saying "press Shift-R to improve the quality of the image". I started blaming Firefox at first. Then I noticed it was there in IE too. I had a quick panic about spyware and other stuff. Then I found this thread on google.
What Vodafone do is run all web access through a transparent proxy. Then they actually intercept all the images you're downloading and recompress them in a very low and very shitty quality and send those on to you as well. Finally they cut out white space and stuff from HTML and insert a script to be able to load the original image.
The thing is, this is quite obviously Evil and they offer no way to turn it off. However, you're paying by capacity. What they're doing is a GOOD thing and I must admit I was baffled at the lack of data I was using when web browsing. Bad stuff is, there's no way to turn it off and they didn't jump up and down and tell you about this at any stage that I saw.
However for a laptop, for browsing on the move, actually this approach is sensible and just what you want really. It's either that or browsing with no images and loading them when required which is a bit of a cock and an inconvienient cock at that. As it stands, if you do want the proper image, shift R and it loads up nice. So in conclusion, they're acting the corporate cock about it but it's actually a damn good solution and is genuinely useful.
Of course what they should really do is not charge TWO FECKING QUID a megabyte and it'd be less of an issue. I'm also rather irritate d by this standard horseshit of the "unlimited connect" which they promptly call out as 1GB being their fair use limit afterwhich they reserve the right to kick you off and all that sort of stuff. Why not just call the bloody thing 1GB? Mobile operators have been shafting us for years so I guess one can't expect them to suddenly become reasonable upstanding businesses.
However, by and large the cost of it is at least down into the realms of reality and assuming you can get your work to foot the bill, it's a pretty niftily performing solution for a laptop. Just think, no more cocking about with wireless access points. Bliss!