The true cost of wireless data


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.

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Accessing the net when you're on the move started off as a bit of a damp squib, with the first WAP-capable phones providing slow access to a small section of the web, using dial-up connections at speeds that had long since been exceeded by conventional modems.

Over the years since then, however, using the net away from a fixed connection has become more and more practical, with GPRS, WiFi and now EDGE and 3G technologies giving more usable connections, allowing you to browse web pages, check email and even connect to the office network when you're out and about.

Many of us now take it for granted that we can check web pages on our mobile phone, or connect to the internet using a laptop while we have coffee or pass the evening in an anonymous hotel room. We routinely look at media clips or buy music from iTunes when we're online, and think nothing of downloading a new application to try out. Thanks to the higher speeds of WiFi and 3G we don't have the same jolt of slowness to remind us about the time we're spending onlne that we used to get a few years ago.

And, of course, the mobile networks are encouraging us to use data, with better phone, combined WiFi and 3G cards and data allowances bundled as part of your subscription. Upgrade to a 3G phone, in fact, and you'll find that data use is positively encouraged, with some networks offering three months of 'unlimited' access to hook you as part of the deal.

But what happens next? All too often, you'll find that after the deal ends, or you use up an allowance of time or data transferred, the big bills start to come in. Make no bones about it - phone calls and broadband net access may be cheap now, but when it comes to data on the move, most of us are still paying way over the odds.

Take your phone or laptop abroad and things become even worse; most of us are used to paying roaming charges, but don't forget the data bill - with some networks charging an outrageous £10 per megabyte, even just downloading a few emails with attachments could turn out to be very costly.

With combined WiFi and data cards, plus mobile phones that incorporate 3G data and Bluetooth, you'll often have a range of options for connecting to the net when you're away from home or the office. But which is the best to try - should you find a WiFi hotspot, hook up to your phone via Bluetooth and use its GPRS or 3G connection? And are you better off with a subscription to a service, or just paying as you go? Is it wisest to stick with what you've got already, or might it be worth buying a WiFi card and a subscription to a hotspot network - or even taking out a second mobile phone subscription just for data?

In this article, we'll explain the different ways that you can get online for mobile data, and how much you can expect to pay. We'll also look at some of the tips, tricks and solutions that you can use to make sure that you don't end up with a massive bill each time you go away.

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