The true cost of wireless data

Synopsis:

Published in July 2006, this article looks at the cost of wireless data, both WiFi and via mobile phone, and explains the options for when you're travelling and need to stay in touch. Please note that the prices in this article were correct at the time it was researched (May 2006) and may have changed since then. Do not use this piece as a definitive buying guide.

This article is copyright material. Please do not reproduce it without permission.

How much data do you use? Chances are, like most of us, you don't actually have much of an idea about the amount that you download each day, or each week - unless you're a heavy user and keep coming up against bandwidth constraints imposed by your ISP. For most people, it really isn't an issue; you download data, and then you don't think about it again.

Step away from your usual internet connection, however, and suddenly things change - you're reliant on either WiFi service, or a connection via your mobile phone, both of which have to be paid for. What you really need to do, of course, is get an idea for how much data you're using.

One way to do that is with your mobile phone - but do it before you go abroad; most mobile phones that have GPRS also include a data counter; look for it in the Call Log area, and reset it. Then, using a cable or Bluetooth connection to your computer, link to the internet and start browsing.

In a quick test we fired up our email program, grabbing a couple of emails - none with attachments - and letting it sync with our IMAP folders. We then went to the Guardian homepage, and opened the UK Latest page, plus six other news stories that looked interesting; fairly typical, we think, for a quick morning fix to keep you in touch when you're away.

After disconnecting, our phone reported 881k sent - mostly due to the IMAP sync - and 1.94Mb received. Do that with a typical roaming data tariff while you're in Europe, and you'll have spent over £25 In just a few minutes!

Costly options

It's vital, then, to consider the choices you have when you're using data on the go; those boil down to two ways of getting online - mobile data (3G or GPRS via your phone or a data card in your laptop), and WiFi. For each of those, you can pay as you go, or take out a subscription.

Not surprisingly, WiFi is often a far cheaper option than using a mobile network, with services like TheCloud (www.thecloud.net) launching unlimited UK WiFi for £11.99 a month this summer, which easily beats anything on offer from the UK mobile phone networks; if you don't use it often enough, you can pay-as-you-go for the same price each week; go abroad, however, and you'll have to pay access charges at WiFi hostpots, which come in at around £6 per hour; it's worth checking carefully, though; for example, Vodafone's WiFi roaming charge is fixed at £3.50 for 30 minutes, or £6 for an hour, while T-Mobile's varies depending on the country you're in and charges in ten minute blocks.

Many hotspots work on a pay as you go basis, but check what you're paying for. For example, buy a voucher for access in one country, and any time remaining may not be usable when you've reached your destination in another.

Even though pricing seems expensive, and a busy WiFi hotspot may not be as fast as you'd hope, they're still likely to be much better value for downloading information than using a mobile phone or GPRS/3G data card.

But if you can't find a hotspot, or you don't have a wireless card in your computer, you'll have to rely on mobile data. And that's where you'll end up spending a lot more than you expected.

The cheapest price for using data internationally, whether browsing the web on your mobile or using it as a model with your laptop, but without a special data tariff, is on O2 - where it will cost you either £7.05 or £5.29 per megabyte, depending on the country you're in; T-Mobile charge £7.50, while Orange's cheapest charge is £8, and Vodafone comes in at £10.28. Three is a little different - their data bundles include a certain amount of roaming in the monthly charge, but when you've used that up, that's your limit - and roaming includes roaming on the partner networks in the UK when you can't get their signal, so you could have used up your allowance before you even leave home, if the 3G signal is bad.

If you haven't, however, their £20/month plan includes 30Mb of roaming data, which is much better value than using the other networks. It may look attractive, but with no data roaming agreements in many countries - including, for example, France and the Netherlands - it's not a good choice for many international data users.

Dedicated data tariffs are worth looking at, and often include a PC card for your laptop - though in many cases the charges are the same once you're roaming, or when you've used up any included data allowance, as they are for connections through your mobile phone.

One honourable exception to that is with Vodafone , where data card usage costs @pound;4.11 per megabyte if you select one of their 'preferred' networks, though it's a whopping £10.28 otherwise, or for access via your phone.

The best deal, at the moment, certainly for UK travellers, is T-Mobile's Web and Walk unlimited, at £19.99 for a 2Gb 'unlimited' service; with the data card free for those who take an 18 month contract.

If you use data a lot abroad, it's also worth looking at the Vodafone Travel tariff, which - for an admittedly hefty £95 plus VAT per month - provides 'unlimited' 1Gb usage in the UK and 100Mb per month of roaming data too; outside that, the charge on preferred networks is only £2/Mb. And while that monthly fee may look steep, bear in mind that with our morning email and web example coming in at around 3Mb, a week away using your mobile phone as a modem would soon rack up even higher charges if you were on any other network.

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