Telstra Bigpond Mobile Card

It says something about both Telstra marketing and wireless broadband access when you open the manual that comes with your Bigpond Mobile Card. The set-up and installation of the card and software comprises two pages of a 56-page booklet.

What it says about Telstra is that you’re dealing with a very large company hoping to flog you a lot of proprietary products. What is says about wireless broadband is how easy it is to set up and use.

The card The West tested was a PCMCIA slot model, the port that’s being replaced by the Express Card slot in most new notebook models. There’s no official release date for an Express card option yet although if you bought your computer before about four months ago it will have the right port.

Unlike most 3G data plans, there’s an up front cost of $299 for the card, then the plans vary with several per-volume and per-hour rates. The higher capacity 550kbps-1.5Mbps plan costs $29.95 for 10 hours and $49.95 for 20 hours. It sounds like a lot but most users would only spend 10-20 hours on a wireless connection per month.

Setting it up involves little more than sliding the SIM card into the wireless card, installing the software and clicking ‘connect’. It’s faster to connect to the network than most of the wireless cards we’ve reviewed, but the connection exhibits some curious behaviour thereafter.

Upon the first few tries, from the southeastern suburbs in the Welshpool area, the signal was incredibly weak. A meter in the software shows how strong the signal strength is, similarly to that you get on a mobile phone screen, and the card barely registered one single bar. Suring the web was like a return to dial-up, and other online tasks were impossible. Half an hour later and quite inexplicably, the signal strength maxed out and the card connected at up to 700 kbps.

The software gives you a tally of all the data that’s gone both up and down the line and the time you’ve been connected. It’s a handy feature as it counts continually until you reset it no many how many ties you reconnect, much like the trip meter in your car if you want to keep constant track.

Where the Bigpond card fell down is in holding on to the connection. Even when receiving the maximum mobile signal strength, the connection was rarely maintained for more than 20 to 25 minutes before a Windows XP pop-up message informed we’d been disconnected. With such a strong signal strength, there’s little to account for such regular dropouts, and a more robust connection should be an essential fix in future versions of the software or network.

Then, several days later and in the same location, the card wouldn’t pick up a signal at all, the software advising that it was ‘initialising’ indefinitely. Such up-and-down reliability plagues all wireless broadband services to some extent, but the Bigpond card was particularly inconsistent.

Though IT journalists and reviewers may warn you the new generation mobile networks in Australia are in their nascent stages, you have to consider what you’ll use wireless broadband for. Even though more of us are buying notebooks than desktop PCs, we’re still overwhelmingly using them on tables and desks near fixed Internet connections where they stay most of the time.

Hardcore field workers will use wireless Internet access a lot more than most of us, and for them a more solid product than Bigpond Wireless is needed.

But few users will be downloading huge installer files or streaming hour-long videos over a wireless connection. If you use on-the-road Internet access for quickly downloading your email or looking up an address on a web page, the Bigpond Mobile card will be more than adequate in most of the Perth metro area. As always, do your own research and conduct your own tests — particularly the further from the CBD you are.

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