Why 3G Broadband Software Is So Annoying

Why 3G Broadband Software Is So Annoying

I’d be lost during the Hand Luggage Only project without 3G broadband, but life would still go much more smoothly if the people writing the driver software actually had a clue how to write a decent product.

The budget for Hand Luggage Only would look pretty ugly if I was paying the typical $20 a day for in-room hotel broadband. As such, 3G broadband has always been a crucial element of the equation.

For the most part, I’ve been using the Vodafone $39.95 a month 5GB postpaid service, simply because I’ve already got that account because of its Eee PC friendliness. At a late stage, 3 agreed to lend me its latest high-speed USB device, which had the added advantage of roaming onto NextG in isolated areas, albeit at a cost. And Optus has now decided it doesn’t want to miss out and is going to try and get a test modem to me on the road. (USB modems are so small that I’m not worried about the luggage implications.)

All of this means that I’m unlikely to go without connectivity, even though there are plenty of public options around as well (I’m writing this from the National Library in Canberra which has an excellent free Wi-Fi service). However, it also means I’m going to be developing frown lines at a rapid rate, because without exception the supplied software for using 3G modems is bug-ridden and replete with unhelpful error messages.

Let’s check out a few choice examples from my recent experience. This doesn’t include the occasions when the software thinks it’s connected but actually isn’t, or decides to reinstall the drivers for no good reason. Nonetheless, it’s a demonstration that the software developers still have a long way to go to produce a basic, functional product.

I’ve encountered it several times, but I’m still not sure what this 3 error message is actually trying to say. In practice, it means “this software can’t cope when your machine wakes up from sleep mode” or “roaming really is as dumb an idea as you might think, so we’re not going to let it happen”.

A basic requirement of any 3G broadband software package is to connect you to your service. This is difficult if, like Telstra’s, it regularly claims your SIM is disconnected when it isn’t.

Getting rid of the offending software can also be painful. Telstra threw this message at me while I was logged in with full administrator access.

Vodafone’s software is particularly good at failing to detect a connected device. It isn’t particularly good at telling you how to deal with the problem.

I got this error message this morning and panicked. Surely I haven’t used 5GB in less than 10 days? Then I looked more closely and realised that the software defaults to a 500MB limit unless you tell it otherwise. That’s fair enough — there’s quite probably no way for the software to tell from the SIM what plan you’re on — but it should be presented as an option to customise the first time you install it.

Windows 7 includes a whole new architecture for 3G broadband, and if the telcos adopt it, this pains may pass. But as I’ve pointed out before, they probably won’t bother. Life on the road is rarely easy.

Throughout May 2009, Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman will be travelling throughout Australia with just one carry-on bag for the Hand Luggage Only project. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


  • this is a big part of why i’ve avoided getting a dongle.
    attaching a mobile data plan to my existing mobile is cheaper, easier. nokia’s phone-as-modem software is fairly reliable, and all you need to make it work is an extra mini-usb cable.
    plus, i can surf the net on my phone when i’m away from the lappy.

  • I like the Lenovo/IBM Access Connection software. If you have a 3G card built into the machine you can set it up to not need the software sent out by the telco. Works globally also.

    Worth the price for the machine alone.

  • Angus,
    It’s funny you mention this. A couple of months ago I purchased the Virgin Pre-paid option to give it test run, and that seemed to work fine for two months so I decided to go on the post-paid.

    Which for some reason meant that they had to waste money and send me another sim card. Umm ok.. well I put the new sim in and then service became so patchy.. Dropping out data streams and just plan kicking me off. I haven’t had so many connection problems since dial-up.

    It seems that problem is not the service coverage per say but that I am in the middle of two strong signals on two different protocols. ..ok that happens, but the driver software is so basic that you cannot choose which protocol you only want to use.
    Which would be a simple fix.

    The result is that I have to re-connect 20 times a day.

    Virign’s Customer Services response was non-too helpful.

  • > “Then I looked more closely and realised that the software defaults to a 500MB limit unless you tell it otherwise. That’s fair enough — there’s quite probably no way for the software to tell from the SIM what plan you’re on”

    Thats absurd… the software connects you to the internet. The internet is the source of all information anyone in the world ever needs… therefore the software should discover what your plan is via the internet!

    • I tend to hear wildly mixed reports on Linux+dongle, depending on the distro and the hardware. Some of the models that have built-in storage as well are documented as causing problems, for instance — and there’s not much help to be had from the telco support (though that’s broadly true in any case, even on a “supported” platform!)

      • Agreed, Kubuntu 8.10 couldn’t have worked better but the new plasma widget network manager in 9.04 has sadly made a meal of it. I’m reinstalling 8.10.

      • One common limitation with “non-sanctioned” clients is no official usage tracking — is this an issue under Ubuntu? (Presumaby basic tracking on a per-session basis is there, but I wonder if it gets aggregated over a meaningful period.)

      • It took a little bit of fiddling to get my Vodafone dongle working with my Eee PC with Easy peasy 1.0. (Ubuntu 8.04) For the last five months it has worked flawlessly.

        Just need to work out how to mount the dongle internaly, then i will be a happy camper.

  • I’m not entirely certain for the other networks, but I know that Three’s software – at least for their stick-shaped E160 / E180 dongles – is simply a ‘skinned’ version of the default Huawei ‘Mobile Partner’ software – and an old version of that software, at that.
    I’ve found the unbranded, generic Huawei software to be less painful, crash less often, and generally behave nicer than the software supplied by Three. As always though YMMV.
    While I couldn’t find my way through the maze that is Huawei’s site for an official download, you’re able to download the latest (I think) Mobile Partner software from: http://www.dc-unlocker.com/downloads/open/32

  • +1 for using your mobile phone. My laptop connects to my windows mobile phone using Bluetooth PAN, no software install. It runs like a dream, very reliable.

  • I’ve come across a number of 3G cards throughout the world and I’ve seen carriers use a number of different methods to authenticate (SIM, MAC, account logon, combinations thereof). However, most 3G connections don’t require third party software. You just need to have:
    * 3G modem driver for the hardware
    * Dialing string to establish a data connection (entered as the phone number)
    * Username and password if required

    Once you’ve got those you can create a connection using Windows Dial-up networking.

    Down with unnecessary software!

  • In OSX, at least with my 3 Prepaid Dongle, there is a way to bypass the software (thank god!)

    You have to set it all up, and make sure it works with the software first, but 95% of the time its sweet.

    Just use the Network Preferences Pane, or alternatively the Modem icon in the Menu Bar if its enabled. Works like a charm…

  • You should try and manage 4 or 5 different pieces of 3G Software in an enterprise environment, freaking NIGHTMARE!

    That said, check out iPass as a solution, I’m not sure if they do one off purchases or personal use, BUT the Telstra version, called Telstra Remote Working Solutions (TRWS) supports almost every 3G out on the market, including ones not sold by Telstra! The iPass software drives TRWS, since it is 3rd party software it supports almost all cards. It can do secure vpn tunnels as well as virus updates and driver updates over the air before establishing a full open connection.

    Awesome stuff, hopefully rolling it out soon.

  • I’ve used both the Vodafone and Telstra app. Vodafone’s software I found flaky as hell (just like their service – I escaped from a 24 month plan due to their terrible, slow coverage).

    Telstra’s is much better, although there does seem to be a bit of a trick to using it. I have had the app freeze up on me a couple of times in the past, but now I make sure I do things in a certain order. Boot PC, log in, load app (I don’t autorun it), wait for app to become responsive, and then plug in the modem.

  • Optus E169 Huawei modem connects pretty well, but there are occasions when an error 633 pops pops up.
    mainly after Vista Hibernation..Unplug and plug modem restores connection. Apart from that, its a rock solid connection.

  • I’ve only ever used a USB dongle supplied by Virgin, which was terrible. I usually use my Three n95 + 3Spot application which I think is terrific. I used it in Sydney this morning while my colleague was driving from the airport to pennant hills – no problems!

  • Agreed, My optus wireless broadband is hopeless..
    For example to use it with my laptop i have to shutdown plug it in and then switch it on for it to work.. and if i use my optus 3g modem my laptop dosent shutdown properly all the LEDs stay on and i have to hold the power button and then it dosent turn back on for a while ><

  • my 3g wireless works fine on my Ubuntu boxes, plug and play. was a bit more tricky installing on my GFs aspire one running linpus tho… but running on my WinXP box it is a pig and sometimes needs me to restart the computer after running for about 15minutes.

  • Just tried to install a Sierra Express card for a customer on a laptop with XP Pro SP3 installed. Installation just stops and advises that it is unable to install due to firewall, lack of disk space, etc. Firewall is turned off and there is over 200 Gb disk space, so that can’t be right.

    Spent 45 minutes on the phone with completely incompetent offshore CSR on a dreadful line without any success. She eventually advised (incorrectly) that the connection manager software is incompatible with XP Pro SP3 and I should “upgrade my computer” to make it work (I kid you not). She then hung up on me.

    (Advice to new CEO designate of Telstra, David Thodey – bring tech support back onshore and employ staff who actually know something)

  • I am also frustrated by the 3G promise have tried the telstra turbo the bigpond the optus, vodafone and telstra mobile business, it is all about the crap software they provide it just doesn’t work, the only one that works everytime it the telstra mobile business, but it is a fixed 3g wifi router.
    Also if you are roaming don’t use the bigpond use the vodafone.

  • I use the prepaid virgin usb stick, and I found a remarkable speed & reliability boost when using the Ubuntu drivers compared to using virgins software on windows.

  • I have to give another vote to using the inbuilt interface on a Mac. It’s not that the Three application is overwhelmingly terrible, but it seems like I get better connectivity this way, and I’m not constantly exposed to the Three logo. The only thing is, does anyone know how to stop the Three app from launching when I plug the usb modem in?

    3G reception in Perth, on the other hand…

    • Victor, when you plug it in you should be able to explore the drive. Just get rid of the Autorun files and possibly the 3 mobile install files. (Dont delete them just cut them to a storage folder on your computer) This should stop it from installing/starting up when you plug it in.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!