Mobile Choice's Guide to Mobile Broadband: Part 1:

Confused by HSDPA?

Ask 10 of your friends and family if they know what HSDPA is and prepare yourself for some blank looks. Do the same with 3.5G or HSUPA and, unless they all work for 3 or Nokia, you'll get the same response.


It's only when you use terms like mobile broadband internet that people start to get a handle on what you're talking about and that's only because broadband is now a technology that most of  us have experienced first hand thanks to the fixed-line internet boom.

As a result, common sense would suggest that mobile broadband must have something to do with accessing the internet at broadband speeds on a phone. However, when you then tell them that you can also get mobile broadband on a laptop with the help of a dongle, you can guarantee you'll have lost them again. But, believe us, it really doesn't need to be that complicated.


If you're confused by mobile broadband, or even if you're dazzled by the world of dongles, this Pocket Phone Guide should put you straight.


What is HSDPA and why does it matter?

Internet speeds on a mobile phone are mainly reliant on the speed of the mobile phone network. Ten years ago, when the mobile internet was known as WAP, network speeds were very slow and consumers sensibly paid WAP very short shrift.


Next, the networks offered us GPRS and EDGE network speeds and, although the mobile internet was getting faster, it was still pretty sluggish.

It was only when 3 went live with the UK's first 3G network, closely followed by the other operators, that the mobile internet started to get interesting.


With 3G, internet speeds on a phone were suddenly about eight times quicker and you could also watch mobile TV and stream videos and music via your internet connection.

Then along comes HSDPA, or mobile broadband, which is already over 10 times faster than 3G. And, for the first time ever, browsing the internet over a mobile network can be compared favourably with accessing the internet using a fixed broadband connection.


For the record, HSDPA stands for High Speed Downlink Packet Access and the network speeds available to you will depend on the operator you are with and the amount of HSDPA coverage they offer.


Simple pricing

You only have to look at the history of the fixed internet to know that we are happiest when we know exactly what we have to pay every month with a fixed fee.

Once companies start talking about prices per pages viewed or megabytes downloaded, confusion can set in. Fortunately, operators like 3 are now offering mobile broadband deals for a set monthly fee. You just choose the amount of data you need and away you go.


3's customers, for example, can choose between 1GB, 3GB and 7GB price plans. A 1GB bundle is estimated to give you 650 emails, 30 hours of web surfing, 60 music downloads and 30 video downloads. 3 is also one of the few operators to offer mobile broadband to pay-as-you-go users.

As for the dongles, the price can be anything from free to £100, depending on the package you choose and the length of your contract.


Mobile broadband - phone or laptop?

Mobile broadband is available to both phone and laptop users. If you're using a phone, it must be HSDPA enabled to access the internet at mobile broadband speeds. But it's simple enough. You just access your phone's web browser and click start. The only thing to worry about is if you're within coverage of an HSDPA network.

If you're using a laptop and you don't have a fixed-line broadband connection - maybe you're working on a train or in a hotel room - you can still connect to the internet via a mobile broadband connection. However, you'll need a modem, which comes in the form of either a dongle, a datacard or you could use your HSDPA phone as a modem.

The dongle is currently the most popular way to access the mobile internet from your laptop, so we'll concentrate on dongles later.


HSDPA Coverage

Let's face it, there is absolutely no point in having a mobile broadband phone or dongle if none of the UK operators have the appropriate network to support them. Therefore, when you're choosing a mobile broadband deal, it's worth checking out the breadth of coverage your operator can offer you.

Bear in mind that, when you move out of coverage range for HSDPA mobile broadband, you will automatically pick up a 3G connection if it's available. Therefore, it's also worth checking out which operators offer the most comprehensive 3G network coverage. For example, 3 currently offers 99.5% network coverage for 3G and over 86% network coverage for HSDPA. In order to improve their HSDPA network and bring down costs, the UK operators are now teaming up to share 3G and HSDPA network resources.


3 has teamed up with T-Mobile and Vodafone has teamed up with Orange to improve the 3G/HSDPA network coverage they can offer customers. However, consumers won't really begin to reap the coverage benefits of these partnerships until next year.


Why speed matters

HSDPA speeds are measured in megabits per second (Mbps) and, theoretically, the higher the Mbps figure, the faster the connection. HSDPA dongles, phones and services usually carry the maximum data speed in brackets; rising from 1.8Mbps to 3.6Mbps and with 7.2Mbps the fastest. Incidentally, 7.2Mbps HSDPA is up to 14 times faster than 3G. However, you'll only be able to enjoy 7.2Mbps HSDPA speeds if your network supports them. Currently, only Vodafone claims to offer 7.2Mbps, although actual speeds are more likely to reach 4-5Mbps.

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