Rory Cellan-Jones

Mobile net takes off - but can you afford it?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 9 Apr 08, 11:39 GMT

It was quite an extraordinary graph in the middle of quite a dull PowerPoint presentation.

3's graph of data useThe line started last October last year at a low level, and then leapt to a point 14 times higher by this March. What the 3 mobile operator was showing a group of journalists and telecoms analysts was the flow of data over its network.

Now 3 has been a bit of a disaster, pouring billions into building Britain's first 3G network, then twiddling its thumbs nervously as customers used it mainly for calls, rather than video or web-surfing.

So what's behind the sudden explosion of data use? One word: dongles, those plug-and-play devices that give your laptop mobile broadband wherever you go.

3 says that while users may have been downloading a million music tracks a month, that involved minimal amounts of data compared with the industrial quantities consumed by home workers now plugging their laptops into the mobile internet.

And 3 is not alone - Vodafone has seen data use on its network surge since it started pushing dongles.

Customer with a 3G phoneWhat's driving all this is that the 3G networks are getting faster. 3 claims its network, which is now merging with that of T-Mobile in the UK, can deliver 3.6 Mbps right now, and will accelerate to 7.2 Mbps later this year and to 14.4 Mbps by the end of 2009.

With those kinds of speeds on offer no wonder there's excited talk of mobile broadband competing with fixed line.

But hold on a minute - two things need to be sorted: price and speed.

We all know that the speed claims by the fixed line operators have been, well, dodgy. Kevin Russell, 3's UK chief executive, describes the advertising practices of the broadband industry as "not much better than estate agents or second-hand car dealers."

He also concedes that that his 3.6 Mbps network will only deliver between 1 and 2 Mbps to users. I've been testing one of the dongles, and have found coverage pretty patchy and slow - and of course indoors it can disappear completely.

Then price. A Google executive was at the same event pressing home the message that the mobile industry had to make its pricing much simpler if the mobile internet was really going to take off.

He put up a slide showing an advert from one mobile operator explaining a supposedly simple data tariff:

“When it comes to understanding the costs [we] have made things easy. Basically, you're charged per page you look at, not per minute spent browsing. Each page costs between 1p-5p, depending on the number of images it contains.

“Browsing and downloading is charged at £x per megabyte (a megabyte being equal to roughly 250 pages).”

Point taken. Anyone reading that would have no idea what it was going to cost them to surf on the move.

The operators know that flat-rate, all-you-can-eat data tariffs are the future - but they are still worried about just how much we will want to eat and whether their networks can cope.

So while 3G mobile broadband is really taking off, it's unlikely - as even Mr Russell concedes - that it will replace fixed broadband.

But the technology it really threatens is Wimax, commonly known as Wi-Fi on steroids.

BT's new boss is talking of investing in Wimax to cover the big mobile gap in its portfolio.

But by the time that investment is in place Britain will be covered in High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) 3G networks - and they may just be fast enough to satisfy the appetite of most mobile broadband users.


  • 1.
  • At 01:19 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • Bob wrote:

Looking forward to the mobile net taking off, again, I just wish more sites were fully compatible with the humble mobile phone. Interactive and up to date traffic news to name but one.

Price is certainly the question, and more so here in Europe than elsewhere. One thing we now have with a borderless EU is the ability to travel easily across countries. Many business people, and soon tourists as well, will be carrying their notebooks with them as they cross borders. What will the price be then? And why should it cost any difference what country in Europe we use our notebooks in. One advantage a Canadian, American or Australian may have is that they can hop on a train or their car and the cost of their 3G internet access would be the same 2km from home, or 2000km. For us though, I fear a simple cross over a border will increase the charges astronomically. Borders are pretty close here, so what will this mean for us?

  • 3.
  • At 01:42 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • Trog wrote:

This is well below your usual high reporting standard Rory. Did you miss the bit about mobile broadband also being flat-rate - not pence per page?

The monthly allowances are 1Gbyte or higher. So if there 250 pages per MB, then there's 250,000 pages per GB - which is about 250 pages per pence!

Speed isn't bad. Not quite as fast or as my home ADSL line from BT - but not far off. I'm getting a little over 1Mbits/s on my dongle. My BT line claims 2MB/s but in practice it rarely exceeds half that.

So, I'm very pleased with my dongle - and it works indoors, on trains, etc. Brilliant.

  • 4.
  • At 01:58 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • RP wrote:

I've been with 3 for close to 5 years now and have only just started taking advantage of its potential.

Back in the day, as Rory noted, 3 spent billions investing in a state of the art 3G network which no-one ever used.

Today that stuff is actually becoming accessible and useful. I pay £5 a month for "unlimited" internet on my phone which I think is extremely good value.

Having the LG Viewty, which is HSDPA enabled, it means that internet on my phone is actually useful instead of a chore. Pages load superfast, I can use Google Maps which loads instantly anywhere in London and thanks to the Viewty's big screen, I can actually read everything properly.

Its only really been in the last year that phones and networks are finally working in harmony to take mutual advantage of each other and its great news.

I've not used the dongles for internet on a laptop but they too are finally becoming more affordable and practical.

However for me, I'm happy to be able to check Facebook, Hotmail and the news from my phone and that I'm able to do it very quickly.

  • 5.
  • At 02:17 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • tom wrote:

the best thing about mobile internet is not having to pay BT £9 ontop of my broadband bill for a phone line which i have never used to make calls.

  • 6.
  • At 02:17 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • Stephen Peterson wrote:

I have one of 3's dongles. Currently our local mast is Turbo initiated as from 1st April, I'm getting 7.2 mb/s Not bad - What I like is no BT line rental! Had cable before we moved and no cable where I am now. Dongle only way to go.Did you know BT charge £148 just to reconnect a line even if the house has a line box already?

  • 7.
  • At 02:22 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • Virgil wrote:

Welcome to the 21st century. Here in the US, 3G networks such as Verizon's EV-DO have been in place for a few years now, and tons of people tether their laptop to a smartphone, using the latter as a broadband modem, rather than pay for WiFi access in airports etc. The thing that makes this possible is unlimited data for $40 a month.

Strictly speaking, verizon has a 5GB/month limit on their "unlimited" accounts, but unless you're constantly streaming movies, its very difficult to go above that limit.

Wifi is dead as far as I'm concerned.

  • 8.
  • At 02:22 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • Vondrak wrote:

Why still depend on hungry operators? Let to peer to peer dynamick-demand society system be our future .

Eventually (and I use that word in the strongest sense) we will all have mobile internet. Everyone will have it. It will as common as TVs, mobile phones and MP3 players.

But there are too many factors that need to be considered. On top of general service costs we need to consider things like battery life, mobility (I'm sure no one fancies lugging around a laptop when a palmtop device would be better), speed... list goes on.

I look forward to the day it happens, but it's probably a good 20 or 30 years away.

  • 10.
  • At 02:39 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • Liam wrote:

O2 charge £7.50 per MB! yes Megabyte! transmitted or received whilst in Spain! crikey! talk about crippling costs. ordered to lower their calling costs by Office fair trading, they simply increase the cost of a small piece of data to stupendeous amounts!

  • 11.
  • At 04:32 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • Keith wrote:

I use a 3 mobile broadband dongle. I would say its great for those who want broadband if they are nver living the same place. A standard line rental costs 12.50 a month plus its a 12 month contract min. I can get 3BG for just £7.50 month. Ideal and its quite fast!

  • 12.
  • At 04:50 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • James wrote:

Ummm - so T-Mobile is obviously the way forward. Web + Walk allows unlimited data transfer for a fixed fee, I am constantly connected and it costs me v. little.

  • 13.
  • At 04:56 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • Richard Webster wrote:

Be careful who you use for your mobile internet connection. Even the "unlimited" 3G package from O2 is artificially limited to 128kb/s, well below the advertised maximal speeds.

  • 14.
  • At 05:02 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • Just-James wrote:

Living in the country, and working from home, my broadband frequently slows down to the pace of an arthritic snail. I was tearing my hair out. Then I got a 3 dongle. It costs me £15 a month for 3Gb. Sod's Law applied - as soon as I got the mobile modem, my landline broadband was fine for a couple of months, but of late has become patchy again. So I use the mobile infrequently, but when I need it, I really need it. I regard it as an indispensible backup.

Speeds are equivalent to broadband and I do use it indoors without problem .... well why wouldn't it? My 3 mobile phone works indoors without problem.

  • 15.
  • At 05:07 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • yousaf wrote:

There is should be unlimted bandwidth (amount of data download) as in newar future application like Gps will be bandwidth hungry.

  • 16.
  • At 05:52 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • Stuart wrote:

To echo other comments posted:

a) 3G services work adequately inside the home for most users and can be as fast as landlines, espcially if you live at the pratical limits of an exchange (as I do)

b) flat rate pricing is available - although I the term "fair use" and "surf the web and download podcasts" leaves me with some apprehension that if I stray beyond the afore mentioned services a penatly could be waiting - depends how zealous the operators are.

  • 17.
  • At 05:57 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • Jon Howell wrote:

I've recently been enticed by 3's mobile broadband internet connection but have had some patchy results with the service in London. Many times it takes 5 or 6 attempts to log onto the 3g network.
This is simply not good enough for on the move internet, if you are in a taxi or train and it's taking you 15 minute to dial up to the network then you are pretty much back in the dark ages of 28.8bps modems and bulletin boards.

  • 18.
  • At 07:27 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • Marie Griffiths wrote:

I brought my parents a 3 dongle as they wanted to use the internet occasionally.
This is vastly cheaper than installing a BT line >£100 and paying BT line rental >£100 a year.
The service a fast and efficient.

I agree, where have all the good old WAP sites gone? Its all just ringtone downloads and casino games apart from a few such as the BBC and WAP sites.

  • 20.
  • At 11:52 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • Tim Perrett wrote:

I have had my 3 dongle a month now - I have a 1Gb max a month, and have been downloading videos, on Facebook and emailing lots everyday and have still not tickled my 1Gb allowance!

I have had HSDPA everywhere I have been so far - Birmingham, Skegness, Minehead to name but a few locations. I have pinged the speed a few times - getting around 0.5Mb download which is not a bad speed really.

I am pretty happy with the service really. Bit of a pain to install the dongle on my Mac but you can plug it into a Windows PC and be on the internet in a matter of a few clicks and a couple of minutes - which I was impressed with.

I agree, where have all the good old WAP sites gone? Its all just ringtone downloads and casino games apart from a few such as the BBC and WAP sites.

  • 22.
  • At 02:51 AM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • Paul wrote:

Good luck to the service provider that supplies the consumers, with a service they want.It seems many these companies have been dragging their heals too long.
What may of been helpful in your report would to of mentioned a device know as Pocket Surfer2, pay for the device and you get 20 hours a month included in the price for a year.

  • 23.
  • At 02:58 AM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • Paul wrote:

Give the consumers a service they want.It seems these companies have been dragging their heals too long.
What may of been helpful in your report would of been to mentioned an alternative a device know as Pocket Surfer2, pay for the device and you get 20 hours a month included in the price for a year.

I have used the 3/3.5G HSDPA and WCDMA networks in Singapore and Hong Kong, and they fly - the highest download speed I attained was a consistent 4mbps (11.4 MB video clip), this on a Bandrich PC Express card. The Nokia 6110 Navigator, equally a 3.5G device/phone/GPS unit, was slower to the laptop, it is limited by its USB interface. Reading the South China Morning Post and the Wall Street Journal, both the full, not the WAP, versions, on the Nokia's browser, was as fast as I would need, and running my Stateside brokerage application was home away from home. By comparison, the fastest download I have ever seen on my Comcast DOCSIS 2.0 modem here in the US, is 10 mbps. Once the carriers stop attempting to recoup their investment from the few that can afford what I can, and start wholesaling the service, I would prefer a portable 3.5G service I can use anywhere, to any other service - I have not been to a country where I cannot use the Bandrich card, or the Nokia, with my carrier's roaming partner, on whatever protocol they are up to. They can kill Wimax before it ever happens - remember that the 3.5G networks are out there, working, today, especially in the countries with ancient copper, and Wimax is so far all talk.

  • 25.
  • At 07:59 AM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • Andy H wrote:

In reponse to Richard Websters comment:
(and in no way defending O2!)
O2 do offer an alternative "unlimited" internet package called Webmax, which does give full HSDPA speed and has a significantly higher fair usage download limit, unfortunately it also costs £30 per month!

  • 26.
  • At 08:07 AM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • Clive wrote:

Its all just too complicated.....

This sounds great to me. Get everyone else on wireless/mobile; that'll help my contention ratio at my exchange pod while contention at the mobile end suffers. I'm rarely a first adopter in new strategies; there is a settling down period and I can't afford to be holding dead technology when the mortality rate is so high.

Spreading the impact of usage among multiple technologies is good for customers, but I dare say that BT will have to rethink their line rental and reconnection charges at some point in the future; just like the music industry has to with the death of their money making model.

  • 28.
  • At 09:04 AM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • Steven wrote:

I had a £5 package for internet downloads to my phone. I knew there were certain restrictions but I didn't realise how bad this was until my bill was often 2 or sometimes 3 times this amount to account for charges which had 'occured outside my monthly limits'. I cancelled it after 4 months.

  • 29.
  • At 09:28 AM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • John wrote:

I have to use a 3 dongle for my internet these days as I am of 'no permanent abode' and it sucks big time. It's OK during daylight hours, but still well down on the ADSL speed I'm used to, but at night it's a nightmare with constant disconnections, DNS losses, and timeouts. I have the feeling 3 may have oversold their networks current capacity to supply.

For those bragging about their so-called 'unlimited' plans, think again, check your fine-print for the 'fair-use policy' and you'll find a cap of 3Gb a month.

  • 30.
  • At 09:33 AM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • Javier wrote:

Mobile Internet is a great idea!
But i still think that its far too expensive. People have commented that with it you dont pay a BT line rental which is great. But you are paying a premium to use this mobile internet that is far greater than the BT / [insert phone operator]line rental. For a slower patchier service that isnt guaranteed in all areas.

At this moment in time its not worth it unless you are a business person who need to download emails on the train or need to surf a text (rather than image) heavy website.

  • 31.
  • At 09:37 AM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • rg wrote:

many people here are saying that they have unlimited 3g broadband. but if you look at the contract there is a fare usage limit. for example: tmobile webnwalk will slow down your connection if you go over 40mb per day.

  • 32.
  • At 09:43 AM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • David Manuel wrote:

I pay £8.99 a month for unlimited internet with T-Mobile UK, and its brilliant, it works really well and I use it so often i'm glad im not paying per megabyte.

  • 33.
  • At 09:45 AM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • Dave Brown wrote:

This very news page, including graphics, weighs in at just under 100kb. So, for a 1Mb allowance, I could view just TEN pages of this size - not 250!

Where that mobile operator has been living to think you can view 250 pages before using up a megabyte, I would love to visit - clearly the pages he is visiting consist solely of text, and not very much of it at that.

  • 34.
  • At 10:01 AM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • Phil wrote:

Where do you get 1Mb=250 pages? The front page of is almost 1Mb on its own. Amazon is a similar size. The bbc website front page is almost 1/2 Mb. Even if you turn off images, there is no way you can get close to 250 pages per Mb - 10 is more like it.
I have a £40 per month tarif with O2, which includes a pitiful 500k (1/2 Mb) of browsing. After that it is about £2 per Mb. If I use my mobile to look on Play for a CD, then Amazon for a comparison, It will cost me around £4. If I actually use my mobile to download a song, it would cost around £10! So how is this expected to replace home broadband?

  • 35.
  • At 10:14 AM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • Mark wrote:

I think mobile broadband is the way to go.

With the landline systems in urgent need of an ugrade to manage the latest internet applications and no one willing to stump up the cash needed to do so, the internet over 3G could just be the answer. With its speeds ever increasing and the ability to access wherever you go it fits the bill.

As already noted, the pricing is the big stumbling block. Clear, precise and easy to understand tariffs are needed. If they can get them anywhere near those of landline ISP's I think the 3G network will be laughing all the way to the bank.

  • 36.
  • At 11:16 AM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • Roger Hyam wrote:

Bought a 3 dongle last November (start of the graph) because it was a reasonable price. I don't even carry mobile phone myself - hate the things. This is a new market. Dongle works for me when on the move and I lend it to friends and colleagues when I am not. Also use it to get round the corporate firewall - I know other people who do this too.

If a MegaByte is around 250 web pages, that would make each page just 4KB in size.

Back in 1999 this was perhaps not too uncommon, but these days we are looking at page sizes of 200KB or more per page. This is rising as more sites use animated or video advertising.

  • 38.
  • At 11:59 AM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • Dan Shannon wrote:

Please do some true research - you start of talking about accelerating data rates - 1.8/3.6/7.2 - these are the HSDPA standards you then mention at the bottom of your article, not only that these are just downlink speeds nothing is mentioned on variation in uplink...

Most flat rates are associated with mobile connect cards or dongles - they still haven't got round to doing those on phones yet (across all networks) and the few that have aren't if you look at the small print...

Turbo is a brand name associated with HS*PA features, all the network operators use variations on a theme to describe the same thing.

There are also as many silly assumptions with mobile data as there are with fixed line and both the customers and the operators are to blame - lack of clear communications and information (also bad research by those supposedly in the know)all go someway to explaining this.

Pricing is daft in this country - it will get better but its going to take a while yet (tried steering an oil tanker?)

Finally since it was raised EV-DO is the poor cousin of the 3GPP standards - once more Qualcomm attempting to force the US market down it on product lines (evolution from CDMA2000) - it represents at best level pegging with the standard R99 3G standards and rapidly falls away when compared to the newer HS*PA and HS8PA+ standards. If Verizon where so happy with it you'd wonder why they are leaping over to the LTE (evolution of the GSM/UMTS standards as apposed to the CDMA) - indeed one of the evolutionary steps for EV-DO, EV-DV was cancelled due to lack of interest...

In essence the customers of all networks need to become more savvy - just like at the beginning of the broadband market several years ago - otherwise the operators will continue to operate as they do now - certainly the government / OFCOM don't understand technology enough to enable consumers to get the deal they want - having half articles don't help.

  • 39.
  • At 12:03 PM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • David wrote:

Two weeks ago I got a T-mobile 3G Dongle. As far as I'm concerned its a lifesaver. We wanted to get home broadband, but our newly converted flat had never had a phone line, and Virgin digital wasn't available. This meant a minimum set-up cost of £125 for the phone line plus any outlay for internet installation and equipment. And it would still cost at least £11 per month for the phone line.

With the mobile net it's only £15 per month and always high speed - comparable with any ADSL-wifi combo. No damage to my landlord's walls and no installation costs. Only problem is I'm tied into a contract which is good value now, but in a year will be comparatively expensive.

  • 40.
  • At 12:03 PM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • Phillip Holley wrote:

I've used 3G for data services since it's inception using 3G handset to laptop and I've been amazed as people with perfectly good & useful 3G phones have seperate cards or dongles for mobile connectivity to their PCs. When I renewed my contract with a talktime of 200minutes but a high data use, there are very few tarrifs available and even now competetive data tarrifs are often limited to the dongles or cards. No wonder 3G stalled at it's inception. Unlimited (but fair) data use is available as bolt on from tmobile and 3 but all operators still insist on text messages and call time judging the tarrif cost. The amount of salesman that looked confused when I said I never sent text messages as handsets now all send emails quite happily and looked blankly at the mention of HSDPA high speed mobile data told a sorry tale. With poor product knowledge amoungst staff and tariff products geared to puely voice use no wonder 3G has failed to catch on with the general public.

  • 41.
  • At 12:07 PM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • Stuart wrote:

You don't need a dongle. I've got a Vodafone Nokia N95 and unlimited broadband for £7.50 per month.

It acts as a basic email and web client, great for Facebook, it's a broadband modem and even a Wireless Access Point so multiple devices can share my connection.


If a MegaByte is around 250 web pages, that would make each page just 4KB in size.

Back in 1999 this was perhaps not too uncommon, but these days we are looking at page sizes of 200KB or more per page. This is rising as more sites use animated or video advertising.

  • 43.
  • At 12:24 PM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • max wrote:

I have full mobile browsing capabilities on my iPhone, with a proper screen size and proper browser, and ALL my browsing is free...

I don't see what this column is about. It's free on o2, its perfectly usable via Wi-Fi or Edge, I can read my Outlook emails, use Amazon, ebay and all other sites without a problem, and without any charges.

Charging for web access is not going to work, it needs to be bundled in with the line rental. 45 pounds a month gets me 20 hours talk time, 1000 messages and unlimited web / data browsing. End of.

  • 44.
  • At 01:10 PM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • Aidan Hansell wrote:

I've been browsing mobile websites for a while now and it's amazing how many sites there are out there for mobiles already from translators, maps and traffic updates to how to look after an alpaca! (don't believe me? try

There aren't many useful directories yet, but among the best are Milkmore ( and WapReview(

There's also a new application called Zabidoo which lists over 1000 UK based web mobile sites once you've downloaded it to your phone.

Mobile web browsing might not be cheap but I hope these links will help you find something when you take the plunge!

  • 45.
  • At 01:39 PM on 10 Apr 2008,
  • Aidan Hansell wrote:

I've been browsing mobile websites for a while now and it's amazing how many sites there are out there for mobiles already, from maps and traffic updates to how to look after an alpaca! (don't believe me? try

There aren't many useful directories yet, but among the best are Milkmore ( and WapReview(

There's also a new application called Zabidoo which lists over 1000 UK based web mobile sites once you've downloaded it to your phone.

Mobile web browsing might not be cheap but I hope these links will help you find something when you take the plunge!

This post is closed to new comments.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites