3G+ Mobile Internet sticks: superb speed, hefty price

The buzz, beeps and tonal cacophony of an old dial-up modem connecting to the Internet evoke feelings of nostalgia in some, and seem as an arcane relic of the past to others.

Today the Internet is something to be plucked out the air and used seamlessly in every day life. And accessing the Internet wirelessly, on any number of mobile devices, is becoming increasingly more popular. Land lines in the form of cable and phone wiring are still home and office staples for reliable connections. But that may change in the not-so-distant future.

With 3G+ wireless networks, Internet speeds on cell phones and mobile Internet sticks have entered true broadband territory. As Internet users are more apt than ever to pull off heavy-duty tasks such as streaming video or downloading large files, broadband is considered necessary for a good surfing experience.

ITBusiness.ca recently had the opportunity to test out a couple of USB wireless Internet sticks from Telus Mobility and Bell Canada. Since launching their shared network in November, the two incumbent carriers have been able to offer products that match Rogers WirelessRocket Stick.

The new HSPA (3G+) network sticks are much faster when compared to the older EVDO (3G) network sticks. But exorbitant data plan pricing puts these products out of reach for most consumers, and the built-in software has a ways to go too.

Telus Sierra Wireless USB 598

Sierra USB stick

Specs at a glance

  1. $249 no contract, free with three-year contract.
  2. 65 mm x 25 mm x 13.5 mm
  3. Package comes with USB extension cable
  4. 21.1 mbps downstream and 5.76 mbps upstream
  5. HSPA network (3G+)
  6. microSD slot for expandable memory

At first I was skeptical of the advertised broadband speed of a blazing fast 21.1 mbps downstream for this Internet stick model. But in practice, the connection is consistently very fast. Still, I suspect the 21.1 mbps is not the speed most of the time, which is probably more around 7.2 mbps, the downstream advertised by Bell and Rogers for similar products.

Web pages load in a snap and video streaming works very smoothly. In fact, I’d put the speed as being better than my usual landline broadband connection, which is a 5 mbps DSL line. No average Web user could be disappointed by the speed performance.

Connecting to the network was also a breeze. The first time you connect an Internet stick to your computer, it will install the application needed to make a connection directly from memory. After this was done for the Sierra 598, it took no longer than 10 seconds to connect with the network.

That’s not to say Sierra’s software was flawless. When running on a Mac, the software would lock up when left unattended. This would freeze the entire system as a result, and require a reboot.

The Internet stick can pick up a signal anywhere a HSPA cell phone can detect one. In the Greater Toronto Area and surrounding suburbs, this never proved to be a problem.

Telus Sierra Wireless USB 306

This is a USB Internet Stick that Telus sold to connect with its EVDO network (3G). But it is no longer advertising the device for sale.

It’s just as well, as the Internet stick offered speeds nowhere close to the 3G+ sticks.

Telus is also selling the Huawei E182E Mobile Internet key for its 3G+ wireless broadband. This stick costs $229 with no contract and is free with a three-year contract.

Bell Novatel Wireless U760 USB Modem

Novatel USB stick

Specs at a glance

  1. Compatible with EVDO/CDMA network.
  2. 3.1 mbps downstream, 1.8 mbps upstream
  3. 57 mm x 25 mm x 12 mm
  4. microSD slot for expandable memory
  5. $175 with no contract and free with a three-year contract

Let’s just say it’s a good thing Bell is now selling a 3G+ version of this mobile Internet stick. Because this stick can be a pain to connect with and use for any heavy lifting on the Web.

Note the much slower downstream rate when compared to the sticks offered on the 3G+ networks. That is true in practice too. This stick is fine if you want to check your e-mail and surf some Web sites, but forget about anything like video streaming or a VoIP call.

Also, the software on this stick seems to take a long time to connect with the network, especially if the signal is anything but perfect. Once a connection is made, it does stay connected without dropping. But the program is also prone to errors at start-up sometimes and needs to be closed and re-opened.

Be sure to avoid this model if you’re buying an Internet stick on Bell. It’s still advertised on Bell’s Web site. But you’ll be much happier with the Novatel Wireless U950, compatible with the HSPA 3G+ network.

Mobile Internet data plans

Bell and Telus offer very similar data pricing for Internet sticks, and its disappointing. Pricing is roughly equivalent to packages sold with smartphones. Yet a laptop user is likely to use more bandwidth than someone thumbing a BlackBerry trackball.

Here are the rates: up to 500 MB for $30 per month, 500 MB to 1 GB for $35, 1 GB to 2 GB for $50, 2 GB to 3 GB for $65, 3 GB to 5 GB for $85.

For every MB in excess of that, you’ll pay $0.03 on Bell and $0.05 on Telus. That’s $30 and $50 per GB respectively. Oh yeah, and don’t forget the activation fee of $35 and Bell’s System Access Fee of $6.95. Telus doesn’t mention a System Access Fee.

Until wireless carriers bring data pricing down to more reasonable levels, 3G+ Internet sticks will be sold in vain. There’s not much point in having access to broadband speeds if you can’t use them without taking out a second mortgage.

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