Bell’s wireless USB modem: fast, convenient, and expensive

I’m sitting outside on a park bench in the sunshine, and Michael Phelps is zipping to a new world record finish in the men’s 200 meter freestyle right in front of me – a gold medal performance.

Of course, Phelps is not really right in front of me – he’s in Beijing, competing in the Water Cube aquatics stadium. But I can still watch him by streaming live video over the Internet using Bell Mobility’s Novatel Wireless U727 modem. The product launched July 4 and is widely available.


A Sprint video demonstrates the same USB Wireless modem offered by Bell.

The carrier bills it as the first product to combine a wireless modem with the storage capability of a USB flash drive. The extra storage is provided by a micro-SD card slot, which provides up to 8 GB of space.

I’ve decided to put the modem to the test by following the advice in a Bell advertisement: “Watch the Olympics anywhere, any time.”

Connectivity and speed

Using the Web while connected with the modem is a pleasure. Web pages load reasonably fast, I can access rich media without frustration, and even running multiple Web applications doesn’t appear to slow things down.

There is a peak download speed of 3.1 Mbps, and peak upload speed of 1.8 Mbps, according to Bell. That translates into a satisfying experience when tuning into a live Webcast of the Olympics.

The first thing I try is streaming a video of the Women’s soccer game – Canada vs. Sweden. The live stream starts right on queue and there is no lag or interruption to my video or sound while watching the final 10 minutes of the match. I chew up 60 Megs of bandwidth watching it.

After that, it’s time to get down to work. I begin a task that requires loading multiple Web pages, FTP transfer and e-mail all at once. This proves to be a painless process, the modem runs just as smoothly as would my normal office Internet connection.

Users should be able to connect to the Internet anywhere they can get a Bell cell phone signal. To test the ability of the laptop to stay connected, I walk down the stairwell of my office and come up the elevator. The Internet is disconnected in both areas, but as soon as I’m in the clear, I’m back in business.

I’m not sure if Bell’s throttling of peer-to-peer traffic is applied to their own EVDO network, but my BitTorrent download speeds prove lackluster. My torrent is coming in at about 10 kb/second.

Usability

Installation of the modem is made easy for the user. The product comes with a CD for installation, but the drivers and software are also loaded onto the USB stick itself, so it’s a plug and play approach.

I plug the modem into my Asus A8J laptop running Windows Vista, and it is detected and installed automatically. Upon reboot of my computer, I get an error from Bell’s Mobile Connect Basic software telling me the application won’t launch. Not a good start.

But after a re-install of the Novatel drivers, I’m ready to go. A green light flickers on the modem to show me it’s receiving power and ready to connect. I press “Connect” on Bell’s software and I’m set to surf the Web in seconds.

The software also displays the familiar connectivity bars and my total data transfer for the session. I notice that it is increasing already, as I sit idly. I’m reminded of getting into a taxi cab and seeing the meter start ticking away.

The microSD card slot works well. I insert a card that I use for storage on my smartphone and I’m able to access the files through Windows Explorer with no problem. I transfer about 20 MB of video over to my hard drive from the card and it takes 40 seconds.

The product is fairly compact, measuring 70 mm by 25 mm, and stays inserted in my laptop as I carry it around. There’s a monitor clip on the device, which I’m not sure is useful at all, but it doesn’t hurt anything.

Compared with other wireless modems, the U727 drains less power while it operates. That will help save the battery life of your laptop when you’re not plugged in – a good feature considering this product is ideal for use while traveling.

Pricing

The price of Bell’s new USB modem is my main contention with the product. While a pleasure to use with its convenience and high speed performance, it is too easy to rack up a real whopper of a bill at the end of the month.

Purchasing the device is less expensive if you agree to a longer contract. Prices begin at $99.95 for a three-year contract, $149.95 for a two-year contract, $249.95 for a one-year contract, and $299.95 with no contract.

Data rate plans begin at $65 for under one gigabyte of usage. The plan is designed so that as soon as you use up additional bandwidth, you’re bumped up into the next pricing range. But be careful of going over five GB of bandwidth – you’ll be paying a hefty fee of 10 cents per megabyte, or $100 a gigabyte.

Max bandwidth

Price

1 GB

$65

2 GB

$75

3 GB

$85

5 GB

$100

The fees are very high if you plan to use this service for anything other than keeping up to date on your e-mail and some light Web surfing. In my one day of product testing had me close to the one gigabyte count. That means this device is not practical for anyone who wants to use the Internet for portable entertainment.

Users can also easily lose track of their monthly usage, because the Bell software only tallies your total for a single session.

Compared to Canadian competitor Rogers, Bell’s rate plan is almost identical. But Rogers’ does offer a half-gigabyte bandwidth option for $50 a month.

Bell’s rate plans for this modem are steep in comparison to what’s offered south of the border. In the U.S., Sprint customers using the same modem can download up to five gigabytes for $60 a month.

Conclusion

The wireless modem is a great connectivity tool for workers that travel often and could benefit from connecting to the Internet on their laptop while on the bus or an airport lounge. But the steep data rates mean this won’t be a hit with the consumer market.

Business users that need to watch the bottom line would be advised to get a better bandwidth tracking tool. That will help keep an eye on how much data you’ve used, and avoid any painful bills.

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