Broadband on the move: free Wi-Fi vs 3G

Mobile broadband showdown
Do you really need mobile broadband or can you survive on free Wi-Fi? We find out

If you've been down to your local mobile phone store recently or even kept an eye on the adverts, then you'll have seen amazing offers for mobile broadband data packages.

The price of mobile broadband has plummeted recently, and data packages are available for as little as £10 per month.

Most mobile broadband offers speeds of up to 3.6Mbps, and some an ambitious 7.6Mbps, which is often achievable in cities.

The rise of mobile broadband has been matched by the proliferation of free and open Wi-Fi, and it's now possible to get connected in most cities.

The question for anyone who wants to access the internet on the move is which of these options is best? Go-anywhere mobile broadband or free Wi-Fi?

To find out James and Fraser hit the streets of Bath to find out which was more suitable for a day out of the office.

Fraser goes for free Wi-Fi

Fraser was charged with testing out Bath's free Wi-Fi hotspots, and was given a lightweight laptop to carry around for the day. His challenge was to spend the day in town, and still carry out his daily tasks.

"Surviving a day out of the office without the internet is pretty impossible, and the need to check email and stay in contact with colleagues back in the office is of paramount importance. While it's possible to use a mobile phone to receive and send emails now, I need to access and amend the attachments," Fraser said.

To stay in touch all day Fraser was going to have to move around the city using free and open Wi-Fi networks, which can be few and far between. Most bars and cafés have Wi-Fi networks, just like the ones in most homes. The difference is that most are subscription based services that require a password to enter.

Finding free and open networks can be difficult, so it was essential to prepare. "Before I left I checked the internet to locate free open hotspots. A few savvy businesses have cashed in on the need for Wi-Fi, most famously McDonald's, but also Wetherspoons pubs, Slug and Lettuce, Prêt a Manger and Coffee Republic shops. Websites such as and are good for finding networks. Once I had my itinerary ready, it was time to work," Fraser explained.

James goes for Virgin mobile broadband

James had the easier task of using a Virgin mobile broadband package. "Having never used a mobile broadband package before I wasn't sure what to expect," James said.

"Before I left the office I unpacked the box to find the 3G stick, but no disc. I plugged the stick into a spare USB port and the installation flashed up automatically. It then installed a program that managed my connections and within a few minutes I was connected to the internet."

"My instant impression was to find the large USB stick protruding from my laptop a little annoying, but it's possible to take the SIM card inside and place it into some laptops with 3G capabilities." The Virgin Mobile USB stick works in much the same way as a mobile phone, complete with the SIM card.

Armed with the laptop and a limitless connection, James jumped on the train to Bath and tried to connect to the internet. However, his dream of fast mobile broadband was soon scuppered, and the reality was a crawling pre-dial-up experience.

"To my dismay the 3.6Mbps I had enjoyed at home was now barely 28Kbps in the countryside between Swindon and Bath, and in some places my connection went altogether," he said.

"Accessing my email was a nightmare, and often the page wouldn't display properly, and while the situation improved as the train went through urban areas, it deteriorated quickly. Further down the train I could see that Fraser wasn't using his laptop at all because like most train operators, First Great Western doesn't have free Wi-Fi. So despite my problems, my train surfing experience was still better than Fraser's."

Free Wi-Fi in McDonald's

Now off the train and into town, the office decided it was time to give our challengers the first test of the day. Fraser was up first with some important messages that needed urgent attention. "As soon as I stepped off the train I got a call to say that there was a file in my inbox that needed approving and amending urgently, so it was time to find some Wi-Fi. I set about marching through town with my laptop in hand, and quickly discovered a McDonald's," Fraser said.

McDonald's recently included open Wi-Fi in all of its UK stores for paying customers, and the fast-food chain is now enjoying a new clientele of suited laptop-toting coffee drinkers. "I took a seat in the corner and found their network, connected and got started. Internet Explorer opened up a log-in page where I had to quickly sign up for an account, proving that nothing in Wi-Fi is truly free, but then I was free to surf," said Fraser.

"Sitting in McDonald's was comfortable, thankfully quiet between the breakfast and lunchtime rushes, and more importantly, I was enjoying the sort of speeds I'm accustomed too in the office. The file was downloaded, edited and emailed back within minutes, leaving me to catch up with the news and finish my coffee."

Mobile in the park

"While Fraser was sitting in McDonald's, I also got the dreaded call from the office. My challenge was the publishing team needed an issue list, which was stored on my hard drive, and they wanted it right this second. I sat down in the park and opened my laptop, connected the USB dongle and attempted to connect," James said.


FASTER CONNECTION: Due to being in a city, James' browsing speeds jumped considerably

This time, however, James was enjoying the benefits of built-up areas, and speeds were soon catapulted into broadband territory. However, the temperamental nature of mobile broadband and James' strong dislike for temperamental technology was soon to clash.

"The connection started first time, and being in the city centre, I could enjoy the maximum 3.6Mbps, and accessed my email without trouble. However, the next page froze, and I spent 30 seconds staring at a white loading screen, before refreshing the page and connecting instantly," James said.

James soon managed to access his email and attach the file easily enough. Meanwhile, things weren't going smoothly in Fraser's second challenge of the day.