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Review of O2 Mobile Broadband USB dongle

I have bought a pay-as-you-go O2 Mobile Broadband USB Dongle to provide broadband connectivity whilst away from home.

The first part was in purchasing this which was not a particularly pleasant experience. This is not a fault of O2, but of the retailer Phone 4U who I will not be buying from again Mobile Broadband - Hard pressure selling from Phones 4 U.

Having got the dongle home the first thing I did was to get it working under Linux. Admittedly using at home where I have high-speed wireless broadband was defeating the point, but I needed to check I could get it working and for that I needed a network connection to access the web. The initial settings in Eeebuntu didn't work, but it didn't take long to find the correct values before I was up and running. Installing O2 Mobile Broadband under Ubuntu Linux - Huawei E160.

I also installed this on a second linux laptop running Ubuntu 9.04 and then under Windows. The dongle can be used across multiple computers, but only one can be registered for the free Cloud or BT Openzone Wi-Fi network (although as far as I know most of these can be accessed for free anyway - eg. McDonalds Wi-Fi hotspots).

Installing on Linux was straight forward once I had the O2 Mobile Pay-as-you-go password settings for using under Linux. There was no additional software to install, it was just plug in and then enter the settings. To connect you just click on the network icon on the task bar and choose the connection. When connecting in a GSM area I had to click this twice before it would connect, but it worked straight away in a mobile broadband area.

Under Windows I first had to install the O2 Connection Manager. An older version of this is contained as a virtual CD drive on the dongle, but that then needed to be upgraded over the Internet to a newer version, and although only a few weeks has passed has now been updated again. Connection manager will show any Wi-Fi zones as well as Broadband / O2 services. On Windows the application will run all the time even if you don't have the dongle connected. This doesn't appear to take much resources, but it does pop-up every now and again asking to update the software and/or the hot spot list.

My first test of actually using the dongle was based on using it on a moving train going from Warwick Parkway to London. I first connected at the station which worked okay and it continued to work for the first 20 minutes whilst on the train in a good coverage area. I connected to a VPN over the broadband connection and was able to access my emails and connect as though on any other broadband connection. It was not long ago that my home broadband was only 2Mb (although I don't think I quite get 2Mb on the mobile broadband I haven't actually tested the speed yet). The broadband speed is fast enough for most email and web-browsing traffic. When in a good reception area the connection stayed constant and it worked without any drops. Unfortunately after about 20mins I lost the connection and there was no signal until I got very close to London. Even then the signal kept dropping so it was in-practical to keep reconnecting to VPN, especially as the VPN client had to be closed down before I could reconnect to the broadband. When the signal was intermittent it was still possible to do some work that did not require a stable connection, so web browsing and emails were still okay, but vpn and ftp transfers were not.

I then used it again in my hotel in London where (as you would expect) it worked fine and had a good signal. It paid for itself in the hotel as it cost less for a month of mobile broadband than 24 hours of hotel wireless network.

I also used the dongle successfully in the docklands where it was quite liberating being able to connect to the Internet from somewhere I'd not had that ability before. Well actually it was more enslaving as it meant I had to deal with a lot of emails that I'd normally not have seen until the following day, but that's the price you pay for mobile connectivity :-(

More recently I tried using the dongle in a village in West Yorkshire which didn't have the same mobile broadband coverage. It is covered by a normal mobile phone signal and so was able to provide GSM access. Unfortunately this is 9600 baud (9.6kb), which is extremely slow. If you've ever used dial-up then you may have some appreciation, but it's still about 4 times slower than that. One feature is that it appeared to apply additional compression on images, which I assume was done by a transparent proxy at the O2 network end. This did make some things a bit easier, but it was still slow and wouldn't help with PDFs or email attachments.

The cost of the broadband is pretty good as long as you do not download a lot of large files (downloading the latest Linux distribution is much better using regular broadband.

The cost is very reasonable. At the time of writing the cost starts from £2 per day up to £15 per month, but each price has it's own download cap which is highest on the monthly option. A contract is not much cheaper, but the more expensive contract approx £30 per month does allow you to download more if you are a power user.

The only problem with pay-and-go is that they do not provide receipts either online or via email. If you need a VAT receipt you have to email customer services and they post one out within the next month (I'm still waiting to receive the receipt).

If you have an occasional need for broadband access then O2 mobile broadband is very useful. It works with Linux (with a little tweaking of settings) and is quite cheap. Make sure that whichever network you choose has good reception where you plan to use it as GSM speeds are very painful, and in some places you may not even get that.