Picture by yourdon
According to ACMA, sales of mobile broadband grew dramatically in 2009, with 2.1 million total users (up 162% on the figures for the previous year). A quarter of all Internet subscribers now use mobile broadband. However, just as many landline subscribers haven’t put much thought into buying the best plan, I suspect many mobile broadband users were equally impulsive.
For most consumers, getting into 3G broadband requires buying both a 3G modem (or dongle), and a SIM card used to access the 3G network. Most providers offer the option of either buying the hardware outright and paying as you go, or signing up for a contract for 24 months (which usually reduces the hardware and access costs).
Ultimately, your choice will come down to a particular provider and whether you want to sign up for a contract or a pay-as-you-go option. We've detailed who offers what in our broadband directory (a document likely to see an update in the first half of this year). However, no matter who you choose, these questions are worth bearing in mind.
What's the reason I'm investing in mobile broadband?
There are three likely answers to this (outside of "it's a cool idea"): flexibility, insurance, or lack of alternatives.
Flexibility covers both someone who expects to move house frequently (such as a university student) or someone who travels a lot (like Lifehacker's editor). Your biggest concern in this scenario is likely to be overall coverage.
Insurance covers a scenario where you largely rely on traditional ADSL, but like the idea of 3G as an additional resource if there's a power or connection failure. This is common if (again like Lifehacker's editor) you're utterly reliant on Net access to do your job. In this scenario, cost becomes an important consideration, and pay-as-you-go is likely to be an attractive option.
Lack of alternatives If you live in an ADSL blackspot, then 3G may be the only viable option. In this scenario, you may not have a lot of choice about available networks anyway, so "whatever works" may be the only alternative (assuming you're not planning to invest in a satellite dish).
What's the reception like at home?
No matter which category you fall into, it's worth checking on what the network reception for a provider you're considering is like at your home. Coverage maps may give you some idea, but the best way to do this is find a friend whose mobile phone operates on that network and check how it handles voice and data tasks. As an added backup, make sure you specify when you live when you eventually buy the 3G device, so that you can return it if it turns out to be a dud.
What's the reception like where I need it?
The same exercise should ideally be repeated anywhere you're likely to want to use broadband with your laptop. Obvious options include your workplace, schools or campuses, relatives' houses (if you visit frequently) and even train lines you regularly use. You're unlikely to get ideal results everywhere, but a consistent series of blanks might suggest thinking about a different provider.
Is there supported software for my preferred OS?
With sufficient effort, you can get 3G to work on just about any platform without actually installing new software, but for the average user, you want to be able to install software from the box and to call on technical support if things go wrong. Virtually every provider supports Windows (though support for versions prior to XP is unlikely); many support Mac, but there's often a delay before official software becomes available. Linux is for the most part a DIY prospect.
What's the total cost?
For contract plans, look at the total cost over the time period (which has to be specified in the documentation). For pay as you go, check the expiry period on unused credit: if you routinely top up with $20 but then only use the service one day a month, you're likely to be ripping yourself off.
Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?