2007 promises to be an exciting year on the broadband front as mobile operators Vodafone, O2 and 3 enter the fray and take on the established, but plodding, fixed-line order.
The torpor currently understood to be affecting the Irish housing market is nothing compared to the sluggish inactivity of the Irish broadband market which, even at an estimated 430,000 connections, is far behind the international standard.
The arrival of a third-generation (3G) mobile technology called HSDPA (high-speed downlink packet access) is believed to be the calling card for the mobile industry to reverse this lamentable trend.
HSDPA modems and phones promise to give broadband speeds to laptop users of anything between 1.4Mbps to 3.6Mbps and the respective networks each cover between 70pc and 80pc of the country.
Will this make a meaningful difference to the country’s broadband performance? It ought to but as the dawn of 2007 gives way to elevenses, I’m not so sure mobile operators are going to approach it in the right fashion.
At first glance I was bemused by Vodafone’s HSDPA modem offering. It’s a tiny USB device that resembles a white computer mouse. In fact, a relative’s first action upon seeing it was to mistake it for a mouse attached to my computer and wiggle it around a bit.
Installation was quick and easy as the device – which works with both PCs and Macs – automatically installs the necessary software without using the CD-ROM.
In minutes a Vodafone controller hits your screen. Hit ‘Connect’ and you’re online at about 1.4Mbps wirelessly.
My standard test for wireless broadband is to go to YouTube.com and download something. The progress of the broadband card was as good as fixed-line broadband and in no time the dulcet tones of New Order’s Ceremony were working their magic.
According to Vodafone, in the next three months the HSDPA network will be boosted to 3.6Mbps and users of the 3G modem won’t need to upgrade at all. The Vodafone network covers 70pc of the country and 5,000 people have signed up so far.
In areas where there’s no 3G coverage users just go into the ‘Settings’ menu on the Vodafone controller, pick ‘Choose Connection Type’ and you can change from 3G to GPRS (general packet radio switch) which operates at about 236Kbps. It’s not as fast but at least you’re online.
The challenge mobile operators face in getting users to adopt new technology is often made more difficult by the pricing strategies they choose.
3G was first hampered, and in my view still is, by price and as a result few people go online on their mobile phone without thinking of their wallet.
While the Vodafone 3G broadband modem comes with an introductory price of €39.99 a month (competitive against fixed-line when you add in fixed-line rental of €25 a month), the fact that you have to pay €129 including Vat for the hardware misses the point.
Laptops coming onto the market in the near future will have HSDPA embedded as standard so people won’t be paying for the modem anyway but for the service.
The service has a 5GB data limit – equal to 1,300 web pages or 3,400 emails with attachments each day – before an out-of-bundle charge of 12c per megabit is charged. This is another point missed as broadband should be limitless.
The broadband modem proves perfectly just how wireless broadband can function and what’s possible. But the reality is that what has prevented people signing up for broadband in significant numbers in this country has actually been price.
A golden opportunity like HSDPA should be exploited and pursued.
What should be key right now in Vodafone’s mind is getting significant numbers of people with laptops hooked up, not entertaining the bean counters back at base.
Value for Money: **
By John Kennedy