A fistful of SIMs

Paul Ockenden explains why he can't recommend one mobile broadband supplier over another

A friend recently asked “do you have a recommendation for the best mobile broadband to go with my new netbook?” That’s a question I’m hearing a lot these days, but the truth is that the mobile data market is moving so rapidly that if I pointed out a particular best deal that’s available as I write (in late April), things will look very different when you read it in June. And to be honest, I reckon that for many netbook users it isn’t actually sensible to settle on a particular contract deal. A great many people won’t be using the netbook as their regular laptop, but will have a more grown-up machine for day-to-day use – the netbook is reserved for occasional jobs such as business trips, holidays and long journeys, so perhaps it will get used only a couple of times a month. In such a situation Pay As You Go (PAYG) data will be far more cost effective, as many of the providers offer special deals that are capped at a pound or two per day.

But far more important than the cost is the ability to actually use the particular network you’ve chosen: they all have black spots, as anyone who’s travelled around the West Country or taken a train from Euston on the West Coast Mainline to Birmingham could testify. And, of course, besides these geographic black spots you’ll find more of them deep within office buildings. Rather than trying to find one good network, I carry a bunch of PAYG data SIM cards from all the main UK networks, so I can nearly always be assured of a good signal wherever I am. The only thing you need to watch out for if you want to do the same is that you’ll need an unlocked dongle or internal HSDPA card. The dongles supplied by the networks themselves are invariably locked to that network, but you can pick up reasonably priced SIM-free or unlocked kit on eBay. I’ll usually perform a manual network scan on one of my phones to see which network is giving the strongest 3G signal, then try that SIM in the data dongle. This makes mobile data usage so much easier – no more holding the netbook up to the hotel window trying to find a faint signal!