Jan
04
2009

Setting up 3G Mobile Broadband.

Some observations on using the Huawei E220 USB 3G Broadband Modem.

The Huawei E220 USB MODEM brings 3G Mobile Broadband to the masses, by utilizing HSPDA technology. In my own real-world tests I achieved 60k per second transfers – some ten times faster than regular dial-up, and good enough for Skype. When a 3G mast can’t be found the Huawei will step back to a 2G data connection, although this means that you’re then back at dial-up speeds. My full experiences are detailed below.

Case Study One – Portugal September 2008.

In September 2008 I had arranged a one week visit to Portugal. As I run my own business, I planned to take a tiny Asus Eee 901 netbook PC with me – so I could sneak in an hours work each day. The villa we were planning to stay at was owned by a couple who also ran a nearby restaurant, which had free WiFi for customers. I figured that I’d be able to connect to their WiFi router using my Alfa 500mW USB adapter with a 14dB high-gain whip antenna – which gives much greater range than the regular WiFi that you’d find built inside a netbook (In fact it pulls in nearly everything in a quarter-mile range). Just in case the WiFi doesn’t work as expected, I’m buying a 10 day PAYG 3G mobile broadband package as a backup.

When we arrived at the airport in Portugal I headed straight for the Vodafone shop. After handing over 60 Euros & my passport number, I became the proud owner of a Vodafone-branded Huawei E220 USB MODEM with a 3G Data Sim. The deal I’ve chosen will give me 200MB of data over the next ten days. I’m not quite sure that 200MB will be enough, but I can easily top this up with a credit card if I use up the data faster than I anticipate. The Vodafone deal is a bargain, as I can see that the E220 MODEMs alone fetch £40 on eBay back in the UK – so the real cost of the Sim plus data is £10.

Once we arrive at the villa, it quickly becomes obvious that I wont be accessing the restaurant’s promised ‘Free WiFi’ – it’s just too far away from the villa. My belt & braces approach has paid dividends though. I can see a mast about half a mile away, and when I try out the USB MODEM it gives a four-bar 3G signal near all the villa’s windows. I manage a data transfer rate of 60K per second – which is 10x faster than I could expect from old-fashioned dial-up.

During the week in Portugal, I use Skype to speak to the family twice a day & spend an hour each day monitoring my business. Over the week I used just 120MB of my data allowance. The big surprise was that Skype worked over a mobile phone operators data network – it seems to be against their own self interests, and I’d read elsewhere that they didn’t allow it. Of course, the total Skype call costs back to the UK for the week were tiny, maybe £5.

Compare my experience with that of my fellow travellers. One friend used his mobile phone to speak to his loved-ones back in the UK at exorbitant international roaming rates – saddling him with a £100+ bill on his return. Another friend had brought his UK 3G dongle with him, and was paying £3 per MB of data for roaming – his bill back in the UK: £400!

The moral to this story: don’t waste money on expensive international roaming for voice or data. Instead pickup a pre-paid PAYG data pack at the airport.

Case Study Two – Spain December 2008.

This time we’re travelling to southern Spain, to stay with the wife’s mother for a week – a Christmas family holiday. She’s already got a laptop setup for dial-up, but it’s so painfully slow next to modern broadband. She’s been complaining that it took her an hour last time she tried to use the laptop to book flight tickets, so I’m taking her a hardware upgrade with me. She’s currently running on a
IBM P3 700MHZ Thinkpad with 384MB of RAM – this was plenty fast enough three years ago, but now it’s beginning to flag. The replacement is a IBM T40 laptop with 1GB of RAM and a 40GB drive – this should keep up for some time to come.

I’m also taking my trusty Eee 901 along too. The plan is to pickup a PAYG Data Sim package – like the one I used in Portugal – to fit in my existing Vodafone E220 USB MODEM. The mother-in-law has confirmed that the Vodafone shop in Javea stocks them, and that they are open on Christmas Eve. I have a hunch that we’re cutting everything too fine & I’m going to be stuck with dial-up!

We arrive at the Vodafone shop just before midday on Christmas Eve. I’ve brought along Euros, Mother-in- law & her passport. The first problem is that the Vodafone shop doesn’t have a data Sim in stock – urgh! The guy serving us says he can upgrade a regular voice Sim for us. The regular Sim costs 15 Euros, and we choose a data package of 400mb that will be good for 3 months @ 40 Euros – this seems much more expensive than in Portugal, considering I already own the E220 MODEM. But, the Portugal package was only for 10 days, so I guess it’s all relative. I’m hoping I can convert the mother-in-law to a broadband junkie by the end of this week.

Now, here’s my important piece of advice: get the staff to setup your MODEM with the Sim and show it working on your laptop before you leave the shop! I didn’t. I tried the Sim in my MODEM, but figured that the Sim hadn’t come live straight away, and left the shop. I then tried again to make a connection during lunch, to no avail. I then tried back at the mother-in-laws villa to make a connection using the IBM laptop, again to no avail.

Inevitably I had to go back to the Vodafone shop in Javea, and ask them to show me the Sim they gave me working in my Vodafone branded USB E220. Of course the MODEM wouldn’t play with the Sim. The guy in the shop tried it with another E220 from his desk and it worked on his desktop computer, he generously swops the dongle under warranty. So we leave the shop and head home… Again, my mistake was to not see the MODEM working with my laptop before I left the store.

I get the new MODEM home and try to set it up. Of course it shows less signs of life than my original. My original E220 would at least install correctly, but then wouldn’t talk to the Sim. This second unit won’t let me install the software. The installation software for the E220 is stored on a Flash RAM chip inside the unit itself, this saves having to have a separate installation CD.

I couldn’t face another visit back to the Vodafone store in Javea – besides which tomorrow was Christmas day and they’d be shut. So, I decided to get on the Internet using regular dial-up and find some software to reflash the E220’s firmware. The upgrade software comes in two parts (download links at the end of this article), and takes just under an hour to download around 15mb over dial-up. Once downloaded, I apply upgrades to the firmware & software in the E220 separately. I re-install and everything now works correctly. Hooray! It’s almost midnight on Christmas Eve and I will have mobile broadband while In Spain.

One thing I notice when I try to use the E220 on Boxing Day is that it’s very picky about positioning: at first it only lets me connect using 2G, which is about the same speed as dial-up. I think I maxed out on 2G at 7.5K per second, so it’s nowhere near good enough for Skyping, etc.

I’ve brought plenty of USB extension leads with me and, after I’ve daisy-chained them together, I quickly find that I can connect at 3G speeds with the dongle positioned outside the walls of the villa. If you’ve decided to use a mobile broadband dongle as your main Internet connection at home it’s going to be well worth installing it in a waterproof plastic enclosure on the outside of your building, up high, to ensure the maximum 3G data rate. You can then use up to 6 metres of USB extension cables to connect to your PC – or 20 metres using powered USB repeaters. If you need to share the connection you can use an old PC running Windows XP or Linux to act like a router.

Conclusions.

In this article I’ve used kilobytes per second to highlight the connection speeds I achieved. When you see adverts for broadband quoting 8mb & 2mb, they are quoting bits per second – as there are 8 bits in a byte you need to divide their headline figures by eight to compare to the figures I quote. It’s just that I think of transfers – like most people – in kilobytes per second.

3G mobile broadband, which I found achived up to 60k per second, is good enough for Skype. It is not good enough for streaming video though – to download an episode of Top Gear from Pirate Bay would take an hour at 250K per second, so thats around 4 ½ hours over 3G broadband (hypothetically, of course). 3G mobile broadband is a practical alternative to wired broadband if you don’t download lots of music & videos.

2G mobile broadband is only useful if you can’t get wired broadband in your area. It’s slighly faster than dial-up, but not much.

If you use a USB extension lead to hang your dongle out of the nearest window, you’ll not only be getting a better signal, but you’ll also reduce the amount of RF Electrosmog that your body soaks up.

 

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