Take the Internet with you: Canadian carriers offer USB Internet sticks

This is equally true for those who live in rural areas where Internet connectivity through Broadband DSL or cable isn’t always an option. The dongles essentially make use of the cellular network to provide easy and remote access to the Web. It’s just that you won’t have too much data to work with.

Rogers Rocket Stick

Rogers has been pushing the Rocket Stick hard with television commercials and flyers landing in mailboxes across the country. It’s been said that the Rocket Stick has an advantage over the others because you can just slide in your phone’s SIM card and tap into the data plan you already have. That is true, but you lose the use of your phone during that time. Still, Rogers seems to try to dissuade you from doing that by offering the Stick straight-up with no contract and no plan for a whopping $299.99. Sign above the dotted line for three years with a plan – or even one year with a data plan of at least $25 – and Rogers hands you the Stick for free.

Rogers has continued the marketing push by suggesting that the Stick will make use of the company’s 3.5G network. This is true if you’re within the coverage areas, which you can check here.  For the moment, Canada’s territories and much of the rural areas far outside the main metropolitan areas don’t seem to be supported for EDGE, much less 3G. But they do offer a helpful menu on the site that gives you an indication of how strong the signal would be in your community.

The plans are pretty basic. For $25, you get 500MB of data per month, $30 for 1GB/month or $60 for 3GB/month. Those are “data only” plans. There are also “Flex Plans” that range from $30 to $85. More details on those can be found here.

First, you’ll have to dish out $35 to get the thing activated. Then, you will have to pay $6.95/month for the dreaded system access fee, as well as an extra 50 cents for the 9-1-1 fee – which is strange since you can’t actually make an emergency call with the Stick anyway. And you’ll pay for extra data, too – As much as $1 for each megabyte or as little as 0.3 cents per megabyte.

The Stick is made by Novatel and the model is the Ovation MC950D. Plug it into a USB port and the setup should take very little time on a PC. On a Mac, the situation is very different. Setting this thing up on a Mac seemed a momentous task, and one that was so needlessly complicated.

Fido 3G Internet Stick

This is essentially the exact same USB Stick that Rogers offers. Even the plans are pretty much the same. Except Fido offers the stick for $275 without a contract, and only seems to give it up for free if you sign a two-year deal. To sweeten the pot, they throw in three months of unlimited email and browsing when you subscribe and sign for those two years.

Where it gets interesting is that Fido waives the system access fee (but not the 9-1-1 fee), even though they’re using Rogers’ network. They also have a promotion happening now that waives the $35 activation fee. The plans are pretty much identical to those offered by Rogers, which is probably no surprise.

For more details on what Fido offers, click here. 

Bell Wireless USB Modem

The Novatel Wireless U727 USB Modem looks a lot like the one Rogers has, except the basic features and the technology inside are very different. Rogers naturally uses 3G on a GSM network, while Bell uses EVDO on CDMA. Novatel also threw in a microSD card slot so that the stick can double as a portable storage device as well. Until December 24, Bell is offering the USB modem free if you at least sign a one-year contract. If you don’t want a contract, you’ll need to spend $299.99 plus taxes to take it off their hands.

The speed is comparable to what Rogers has, and it’s nice to see how much data is incoming and outgoing. Tally them up and you know how much you’re using. But like Rogers and Telus, Bell’s software starts back at zero every time you log in. There’s no way of knowing how much you’ve used unless you keep track of it manually yourself. It’s possible that Bell could send you a text message to let you know when you’re getting close to the limit, but I haven’t seen that on the website yet.

Another downside here is that there’s no way to tap into your existing data plan from your phone because there’s obviously no SIM card. So, you will definitely have to get another data plan, and they range from $25/500MB to $30/1GB to $50/2GB. Additional data is 0.3 cents per megabyte. There’s a system access fee of $8.95/month and 75 cents for 9-1-1. Not to mention the $35 activation fee. And finally, it seems that not all provinces get an equal crack at this thing. The plans I mention above pertain to Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada, whereas the prices and options vary for the others. Best to go to Bell’s website from your home province to see what’s being offered.

For both the PC and Mac, Bell’s stick proved to be the easiest to install. Setup took less than 10 minutes for both platforms, as all it took was installing the drivers from the included CD and then basically opening the Mobile Connect software. It was very consistent with its speed, too, though I figure that’s partly because I’m in a big city where coverage should be strong. For more info on the Mobile Connect software, which can be used for tethered modem connections as well, click here.

Telus Wireless Compass 597 USB Modem

This nifty card is made by Sierra Wireless, and Telus seems to be pushing it a fair bit on its website. It uses the same EVDO network that Bell’s does, and the installation and setup is also very similar to how it was with Bell’s as well. And that goes for both PC and Mac. Sierra uses an application that basically launches the device and enables the connection. In a smart move, they also embedded the software and drivers on the USB stick, so I didn’t need to run anything off a CD.

The speed and overall user experience is very much the same. You see the incoming and outgoing data usage, it starts at zero after each login and it doesn’t keep an overall usage track for you. Typical download speed ranged between 400-800 kbps, while upload speed teetered between 250-400 kbps.

It seems Telus is also being a little generous. They’re offering the USB modem for $149.99 without a contract, or free if you sign even a one-year contract. And if there is a cutoff date for that, there’s been no mention of it. If you do sign up, Telus does give you three months of unlimited data usage.

But, as always, there is a catch here. The plans look like this: $25/500MB, $30/1GB and $60/3GB. There is the $35 activation fee, a $6.95/month system access fee and 75 cents for the 9-1-1 service that you’ll never use. Data roaming in the U.S. is 50 cents per megabyte. These plans are comparable to the others, but they’re only offered in Western Canada. The same $25 plan in Ontario or New Brunswick only offers a measly 4MB of data usage, according to the website. For a look at the plans on the West Coast, click here. 

And since Bell’s plans are aimed east of Manitoba, it seems Bell and Telus agreed to focus on their respective areas.

Is it worth it?

I like the fact that I could roam throughout Canada and not pay an extra cent for the data usage. It’s also nice to know that as long as you stay within your data limits in the U.S., you won’t have to pay extra for that, either (if you’re with Rogers and Fido, at least). But if you do go over the mark, be prepared for the whopping $6/megabyte fee.

One advantage in having to get a new plan and contract is that you can opt to go with another provider for this. So, for example, if you’re a Rogers customer for your phone, you could go with Bell or Telus for the USB modem.

I’m not sure I would recommend it for city dwellers looking to have a permanent Internet connection because the data usage will only increase. Rural dwellers who might have a tough time getting Internet connectivity at home through more traditional channels, should look into these as possible alternatives.

These sticks have become popular because of how ubiquitous USB ports are, and because more and more people are carrying laptops. The good news is that data limits will only grow, but knowing these three companies, that isn’t likely to happen too soon.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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