Thursday, May 31, 2007

Figuring out mobile data tariffs

I'm generally a very light user of a phone for ordinary calls (voice), so have only ever made use of 'Pay as you go' SIM cards. The exception is when I'm in Thailand, where I find myself making and receiving more calls than I would in the UK during the course of a year! (I have lots of relatives there :-)

Since a few years ago, I was interested in data access and I ran some notional tests using GSM on my Nokia 8210 communicating with HP Jornada 720 via Infrared, but reaching 700bits per second at a cost of several pence per minute wasn't of much practical benefit. But now the landscape has changed, or at least it should have: I have the HTC Trinity with support for 3G and HSDPA and generally there's been a fair amount of momentum, not least because we are getting used to having the Internet 'on tap' with always on broadband connections.

Since buying the Nokia phone, I have stuck with the Vodafone 'Pay as you go' SIM, but when I looked at the data options, it seemed sadly lacking. My phone was indicating 3G receptivity, so that looked promising and I downloaded and installed the Network Settings Wizard off the HTC Europe site. However, I was unable to make a connection. I popped into a local Vodafone store and the staff were friendly, but all they did was give me a printout of settings that I also failed to get working.

Actually I had already heard from a colleague about T-Mobile's 'Web n Walk' day pass and mentioned this in the shop. The sales staff could only say that there would be something to match it, but he didn't know what it would be and I'd have to wait until June. Well, June is almost here and details have been made available - drawn by an article on the Register, I read about the new offer.

However, I had already sent off for a free T-Mobile SIM and have been using it for about 3 weeks, having used the Network Settings Wizard above to connect almost immediately. The basic terms on traffic are: 0.73p per KB, with £1 cap; a 'fair usage' allowance of 40MB per day - see the full terms. That's quite clever, because it seems very generous, but using HSDPA (which is available in Oxford, though Windows Mobile 5 doesn't have an 'H' icon), you can reach the cap in half a second! Furthermore, 40MB is not that much, really. Today I was tuning into a live stream from DMC TV to celebrate Vesak. The ceremony took place throughout the day and during lunchtime I showed some friends on the phone (with a similar display to what I had found for Earth Day). In just a couple of minutes I had consumed more than 1MB, yet I was not using a particularly high bandwidth stream.

Even though the Vodafone has introduced its offer with the benefit of being able to observe the popularity of T-Mobile, it appears to me only marginally better in one respect: you don't reach the £1 cap so quickly - only after 0.5MB as opposed to 73K. If your use is just for checking email selectively (e.g. you download only message headers and then manually pick and choose which text bodies to download) or perhaps a few mobile-optimised web sites, then it may prove a bit cheaper, but with broadband connections I expect most people will be looking to replicate what they do at home and in the office whilst on the move, so 1MB will be gobbled up very quickly and you'll be looking at 15MB for £1, followed by £2 per MB, which is an inferior offer :-(

So T-Mobile's 'Web n Walk' day pass still seems the best deal for users wanting to make more than token use of the Net where you need the phone network for connectivity. Yet it's quite restrictive in the amount of data you can transfer and cleverly imposes other restrictions in terms of applications you can use - it excludes instant messaging and VoIP - and further you're not even allowed to connect it to a laptop: "We do not permit use of this service to provide modem access for a computer." These facilities are allowed, if at all, only for the more expensive plans.

In the UK, the telecoms companies not surprisingly need some means of recouping the considerable costs of buying licenses for the 3G and other radio spectrums...


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