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.

Saving money

When you're charged by the amount of data that you download, the obvious solution is to make sure that you don't download so much; you can take simple steps like turning off images in your web browser, or choosing to download the compressed versions of files where possible, instead of uncompressed ones, and disabling any synchronisation option on your email program. But there are also dedicated software solutions that can help you to save time and money.

One of the best known is OnSpeed, which is marketed as an internet accelerator; on a Windows computer, it works as a web proxy, applying compression to data as your web browser requests it, and recompressing images on the fly, to varying degrees, letting you choose between the crispness of the pictures and the saving in time and data transferred.

Anyone using a laptop with a mobile phone as a modem would be well advised to consider OnSpeed; it will make a dramatic reduction in your data bills. In our lasts tests, it managed a fifteen fold speed increase, at the cost of loss of detail in pictures; the compression - as long as you're not downloading already compressed material, like MP3s or zip files - will very likely save you more than the £24.99 subscription.

But what about mobile browsing? OnSpeed's latest offering (OnSpeed Mobile), costs £19.99 per year, and it's a Java-based web browser; the firm boasts a five times speed boost, and in our tests we found that ? depending on the web site - it varied between that and just doubling; the same holds true for the amount of data transferred too ? which means that if you're paying by the megabyte for web browsing, you could easily halve the cost; browse a few meg of web pages while you're abroad, and you'll easily recoup the costs - though you'll have to use OnSpeed's browser, and you won't see a boost to other net-ready applications on your phone, such as email.

If you don't want to fork out money up front, there are other solutions, of course. Web sites you visit often - or anticipate visiting - will likely have a lot of page furniture - logos, buttons, and so on - that doesn't change. So, if you think you'll be using the Guardian Online or BBC News sites to keep abreast of what's happening at home, for instance, have a thorough browse before you leave home - and don't empty your cache - to ensure all the key graphics are already on your computer.

Remember, too, that recordable discs are very cheap - as are the drives. If there's a library of files you may need to refer to on the server at work, and company policy allows it, make a copy onto a recordable DVD and take it with you. Even if you have to splash out for a burner, at under £40, it'll still be cheaper than downloading any substantial amount of data on an overseas connection. In fact, if you can wait overnight for a file, £40 would see a DVD delivered via UPS from London to Paris by 1030 the next day, or to Budapest by the end of the day.

And if you do need to download while you're away, remember that a cyber café with a disc burner is still likely to be a much more cost effective way of getting what you want that going online from your laptop.

Change on the horizon

It's not - thankfully - all doom and gloom; over recent months, the EU has been making threatening noises about the costs of roaming with mobile phones, and while the headlines have focussed on the price of voice calls, the investigation will actually cover all roaming charges, including data.

That should be good news for consumers, and proposals for any legislation are due to be published in July; in advance of that, networks have been rushing to cut costs in a bid to show that they really can be trusted to look after their consumers - a move which has persuaded at least some of the national regulators to agree that regulation may not be necessary.

In our view, however, it still is - certainly when it comes to data. There's never been any justification for a charge of £10 per megabyte when you're roaming and while the prices are slowly falling we think it's still far too expensive.

Data bundles will inevitably increase in size and value for money, like T-Mobile's HSDPA offering (see box), but there will be restrictions too. Reliable high speed data obviously makes it simpler to plug a VoIP phone or Skype headset into a 3G-equipped laptop and bypass mobile roaming charges, or even have your office telephone extension in your hotel room with you. Or that's the theory - in practise, T-Mobile has announced a ban on VoIP and instant messaging, and other networks may follow, though 3 actually bundles Skype with their data card; perhaps with patchy international data coverage, they won't be losing out anyway.

While the networks will inevitably grab some headlines with talk of price cuts for roaming, most of those are going to be for voice calls. When it comes to data on the go, we fear it'll be a long time yet before everyone can use it without worrying about the bills.

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