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Vodafone Connect Card – mobile data done right?

And no hotspot hype either

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Vodafone Mobile Connect Card

Despite the hype surrounding wireless PDAs and SmartPhones, the notebook PC remains the most important business computing device for mobile professionals and this is unlikely to change in the short term. Something that is set to change, however, is the way notebooks are connected to the Internet or corporate networks while users are on the road.

The term that will spring to many peoples' minds at this point is 'WiFi hotspot'. High profile campaigns by the likes of Intel and Microsoft have succeeded in positioning this approach as the default connectivity option for notebook users. Yet the number of hotspots out there is still extremely limited and the immature behaviour of service providers trying to 'grab land' at the expense of their competitors doesn't help the situation. Outside of big airports and train stations, users who sign a contract now will only be able to connect in a fraction of the locations in which hotspots exist - the ones their provider controls. Until providers co-operate to fix this problem, it is difficult to see how the market will progress from the ad hoc usage that defines it today.

Against this background, cellular operators have been steadily moving forwards with GPRS, the service that allows Internet and corporate connectivity over the existing mobile phone networks. In contrast to hotspots, GPRS provides genuinely pervasive coverage - it's available anywhere you can get a mobile phone signal. This increases the chances of being able to connect where and when you need to, including places where hotspots are never likely to appear, such as client sites, lay-bys, the park, quiet fields by the river, etc.

But there have been challenges with GPRS for serious notebook users. With typical connection speeds of only 30-40Kbps and data transfer charges of up to £2 per megabyte, the headline proposition hasn't been an immediate grabber.

There has also been the challenge of coordinating all of the required technology. The most common approach to connecting a notebook has been to use a GPRS phone as a modem, which, even with Bluetooth, is a fiddly process requiring a degree of technical knowledge and bloody-minded persistence that the average business user is unlikely to have.

Then there's the question of whether mobile operators are able to provide effective support, particularly to small businesses and the self-employed who don't have an IT department to fall back on. I've had some frustrating experiences over the last year with Orange, for example, suggesting it isn't geared up either culturally or practically to help a notebook user who genuinely relies on its GPRS service for business use. Applying the same approach you'd take to solve a teenager's SMS problem just isn't good enough.

One of the mobile operators that has tried to address these challenges is Vodafone. It launched its Mobile Connect Card earlier this year. Having contended first hand with the issues for over a year as an early GPRS adopter, this was a product I really wanted to try.

The first thing that struck me was the availability of a high use tariff. I knew from experience that my monthly GPRS usage ranges between 35Mb and 100Mb, depending on the amount of time I spend on the road. Vodafone's 'GPRS Complete' option at £45 per month for 150Mb translated to an average 50 per cent reduction in cost for me as well as providing predictability and lots of headroom. The equipment itself cost £99 with the high use contract.

Installing the card and the software was extremely straightforward with no need for specialist technical knowledge. All of the parameters required to establish a GPRS connection were hidden behind the scenes. During installation, I also noted the bundling of the Macara optimisation software that uses a client/server approach to compress data on the fly to achieve greater effective data rates. Once active, this delivered an experience similar to a 56Kbps fixed-line modem connection, noticeably quicker than raw GPRS and suitable for most purposes, but not the 3-5 times improvement often claimed for GPRS optimisation solutions.

Extended use threw up a couple of negatives. The first one was the reduction of up to 30 per cent in battery life of the notebook PC, something to bear in mind if you spend a lot of time working completely unplugged. Unfortunately, there is no software switch to enable the GPRS radio to be shut down elegantly to conserve power when its not needed.

The second negative was concerned with the network. Compared to previous experience with Orange GPRS, I encountered noticeably more failures to connect and spontaneous disconnections. Some of my problems seemed to be caused by set-up issues on the network side, although I eventually had to accept a slightly lower quality of service than I was used to, particularly when travelling at high speed on the two-hour train journey I make into London a couple of time a week. This highlights the fact that while all GPRS networks have 95 per cent plus coverage, they do not all behave the same so it is worth trying another if yours doesn't meet expectations.

On the plus side, I noted during the troubleshooting process that Vodafone has formed a specialist support team for the Connect Card. This is responsive, capable and empathetic to the needs of a business user - quite a contrast to my Orange experience.

At an industry level, while all operators now have GPRS based offerings for big corporates, these generally rely on implementation and tuning by IT departments and system integrators. The significance of Vodafone's Mobile Connect Card is that it makes mobile connectivity accessible to smaller businesses that don't have the same technical resources available. The plug-and-go approach with appropriate commercial terms and customer service is extremely important for this market, which in turn is important to the mobile operators. It is therefore not surprising that other operators are following Vodafone's lead, though none has yet brought all of the elements together quite so effectively.

In the future, there is no doubt that users will demand freedom to mix and match wireless connectivity options across GPRS, 3G and Wi-Fi. The mobile operators are already onto this and many, including Vodafone, have confirmed that Wi-Fi services have a place in their strategy. In the meantime, however, GPRS is here today and works adequately for most business purposes. ®

Copyright © 2003, Quocirca

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