3G NetConnect Card


Wireless Internet access has grown exponentially with the rise of mobile computing. Since some boffin realised data could be delivered through the airwaves as easily as it could over the phone line into your house, technologies like the 3 NetConnect Card have unshackled it from cables and wires.

The card itself is free with any of the 3 NetConnect per-month plans. It’s a 12cm long insert that fits into your PCMCIA slot, the multi-purpose credit card-sized socket on your notebook. Don’t worry that PCMCIA slots are disappearing; there’ll be an Express card slot version by the end of the year.

The install CD contains a simple application called MobiLink, which reads the slot to make sure the card is installed and which you use to connect to the network. After an initialisation period of perhaps 10-25 seconds depending on how fast your PC is, hit the ‘Connect’ button on the software and in little more than another 15 seconds you’re connected.

Mobilink does more than just connect to the network. The SIM card embedded in the NetConnect Card acts just like a mobile SIM card, recording and transmitting your account data. So, using Mobilink’s SMS client, you can type out and send SMS messages just like you would an email, a great feature if you need to broadcast to more than one number.

Once you’re connected, you operate just as if you had a network cable or modem plugged in — The West tested the connection speed and strength using the web, email and file transfer via FTP.

The ease of setting up the card and getting on the network with it is a big selling point. It should be said at this stage that yes, you can connect to the net on your laptop via a Bluetooth-enabled mobile and there are many similarly tech-heavy solutions. But to many users — particularly in the consumer sphere — inserting the card into a slot and clicking twice to get connected will be worth paying a little more for.

But the real test of a wireless product is the local network availability, so we tested it in four locations around the country. A map provided by 3 shows the coverage in all Australian capitals, and claims the network covers 96% of the population. It’s by no means a wild claim — Australia’s one of the few countries on Earth with a mostly city-based population, so telecommunications providers need only concentrate on a few tiny pockets scattered around a vast coastline.

The NetConnect card does so using two delivery platforms. 3’s own Broadband Zone is the more concentrated and central network. Outside that your connection seeks out Telstra’s slower GPRS network. When you’re accessing the 3 broadband network, the light on the NetConnect card turns blue, then changes to green if you fall outside the 3 area and pick up Telstra’s signal. Even if you don’t notice the light change colour, the drop in network speed is dramatic, akin to going from a broadband to a dial-up home connection.

The 3 broadband network extends from Mindarie to Rockingham and includes Rottnest, stopping at the foot of the hills along Armadale, Gosnells and Maida Vale. The Telstra network fills in the gaps, covering pockets around Mundaring, Walliston, Byford and Serpentine.

We’re lucky in the West with a relatively flat metro region bound by a long, straight land barrier (Perth Hills). While the 3 network covers the cities and surrounds of the other capitals, Adelaideans and Brisbanites in particular live under a scattershot cloak of Telstra GPRS coverage.

The major test of network speed was to download an installer file of 11.1Mb in several locations. In the town of Bateman’s Bay, 4 hours south of Sydney, the card accessed the Telstra GPRS network and after half an hour barely half the file had been downloaded. 20 minutes outside town in the hamlet of Broulee it didn’t connect at all.

In the middle of the Sydney CBD the connection was as robust as any desktop machine with a low-end ISP connection, downloading the file in only a few minutes.

On the western fringe of the Cronulla-Sutherland area, the connection didn’t fare nearly as well as expected. The file took over 22 minutes and the connection hovered around 8 or 9kbps. Compared to a standard desktop speed on a 256k account around 200kbps, the difference was notable.

Perth rated much better. Downloading the same file about 12km from the centre of Perth in Forrestfield took four and a half minutes, reaching speeds of 40-45kbps.

Many factors might account for the lower performance in the Sydney suburbs. Forrestfield’s much closer to QV1 than suburban Bangor is from the Sydney Harbour Bridge. With five times as many people, there’s much more electromagnetic pollution to interfere with telecommunication signals than we have here. Sydney also has a very hilly topography that will save them in a tsunami but does nothing for TV and mobile reception in many areas.

Aside from all that, we’ve all experienced a mobile call dropping out in a location that gave us no trouble the previous day — sometimes networks just have bad days.

And while network speeds and download times make for good statistics, they should be kept in perspective. Downloading an 11Mb file isn’t usually something you’d do from your car while you’re on the phone with a client. It’s important enough for many uses and in many professions that you’re simply connected wherever you are.

The NetConnect card is for when you’re on the road, don’t know an essential phone number and can simply go to their website to get it. It’s for when you need to get an email but you’re not near your desktop computer. There are as many reasons it’s essential as there are people offsite who wish they had a fast, easy way to get on the net on their own laptop.


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