Mobile broadband goes mainstream

Three mobile's 3G Broadband dongle

Three mobile's 3G Broadband dongle

The growth of mobile broadband in the past year has been break-neck by Irish standards – somewhat ironic given the complaints by many customers over the technology’s inability to meet connection speeds promised. However with service quality improving and top speeds increasing, mobile broadband players are looking to make the technology a standard part of future computers’ design.

Ireland’s mobile – or 3G – broadband market has only existed for around 18 months but has already seen heated competition and innovation. The three companies offering such services at the moment are O2, Vodafone and Three; all of which offer a bill-pay option with the latter also offering a pay-as-you-go service.

Meteor is the only significant player in the Irish market not to have a mobile broadband offering to date. With the company recently upgrading its network to 3G it appears to be only a matter of time, though, possibly even under the Eircom brand.

According to ComReg’s latest quarterly report in September, there were over 220,000 mobile broadband connections in Ireland giving the three companies a 20% share of the total broadband market.

Many of these are assumed to be used as a secondary service in addition to the customer’s landline connection but Damien Gallagher, head of business markets and new initiatives at Three Mobile thinks not.

“I think the majority are standalone customers who use it at home or for their children to be honest – we have a lot of customers in Tipperary, for example, that are using our service because they just can’t get broadband any other way.”

Three mobile was first on the mobile broadband scene in May 2007, followed closely by Vodafone. The benefits of its early arrival to market may have been offset somewhat by the problems customers encountered, however, with blogs and discussion forums showing significant customer unrest since the launch with most saying the speed they were getting was way below the advertised maximum.

“We launched in May 2007 and we went from a standing start to the 95,000 customers we have now,” says Mr. Gallagher. “What happened I’d say is that when it first launched so many people wanted it and we were trying to keep up with that demand but we’ve gotten there now I think.”

At present most users of 3G broadband need to purchase a USB device and a SIM card. The SIM card slots into the device and provides the 3G connection just like on a mobile phone, while the device itself plus into the laptop or computer.

This method could be on the verge of changing, however, with an international consortium working on a way to put SIM card slots into mainstream laptops, removing the need for a separate plug-in device.

The technology to do this is already there and has been utilised in a handful of laptops so far – what companies like Three want to do is drive down the cost of the technology and eventually make it a standard feature in all computers, just like WiFi is today.

Besides network operators like Three and Vodafone the working group also features software and hardware manufactures, the most notable of which is Dell.

“We were actually the first to give the option of a 3G connection in one of our laptops over two years ago,” says Bob Bennett, client product manager for Dell in Ireland and the UK. “Since then we’ve made the option available on almost all of our commercial Inspiron laptops.”

The technology Dell uses in its commercial division has already seeped slightly into the consumer end also, with the manufacturer partnering with Vodafone to provide a built-in service for its ultra-portable Inspiron Mini 9.

Vodafone and Dell have a strong relationship across Europe when it comes to 3G broadband offers, however Mr. Bennett stressed that the built-in SIM slots they ship machines with are not locked in to Vodafone and can be used with rival network’s cards.

Part of the reason for the working group is to ensure this kind of cross-network compatibility is possible but for manufacturers like Dell it is also a case of getting greater demand which will lead to lower prices.

“The chip costs a fair amount of money to put it – much more than WiFi. That price will come down just like with everything and the good news is there’s more companies making them now because they see demand coming from manufacturers.”

Damien Gallagher believes the demand from customers is also there and will only increase as the service and speed improves.

“I have a funny feeling that long term as prices fall on mobile services that people will look at their fixed line and ask ‘what value am I getting out of this?’,” he says. “If you have DSL at home you have to pay line rental before you even include the cost of the broadband, that’s against something like €20 or €30 for mobile broadband so I think a lot of people are going to start switching.”

Bob Bennett agrees that 3G broadband could be a challenge for fixed service carriers but suggests it will never be a replacement, simply because landline speeds will always be one step ahead of mobile.

“I think the next two to three years should see the technology becoming almost standard in laptops. By 2010 they’re talking about speeds of 24mb for mobile broadband which is good by today’s standards, but at that stage DSL will probably be able to churn out 1gb connections – so it will always be one step ahead.”

There is agreement, however, that mobile broadband is going to become a far more common feature of modern computing in the years ahead.

An edited version of this article was published in Business & Finance magazine on the 23rd October 2008.

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