3's Mobile Broadband USB Modem looked a touch familiar when it landed at CNET.com.au a short while back, and indeed it should. The 3 Mobile Broadband USB Modem is in fact a Huawei external USB modem of exactly the same type as the Vodafone Mobile Connect 3G HSDPA USB Modem. We can't think of a better descriptor for the modem than that which appeared in the original review:
"The USB modem looks more like a soap-on-a-rope, or at least soap-on-a-USB-cable."
As with the Vodafone variant, 3 gives you a small USB cable for direct connection, as well as a lengthier USB cable with optional second connector for providing additional power.
The USB Modem uses HSDPA with a top data download speed of 3.6Mbps and upload speed of up to 384kbps. The client software -- Windows or Mac -- is extremely simple to use, but then again this is a modem only; there's precious little to configure.
Usage of the Mobile Broadband USB Modem is subject to 3's data tariffs. At the time of writing, 3 plans were available. AU$29/month will score you 200MB of data, AU$49/month nets you 1GB and the top tier AU$69/month plan comes with 2GB of included data. All 3 plans have a 10c/MB excess usage charge within 3's Broadband Zones, but roaming usage outside that will cost you a hefty AU$1.65/MB. That's a tasty AU$1650/GB, so it would be well worth your while to limit your roaming usage, if not eliminate it altogether if possible. The modem itself has a list price of AU$399, although signing up for a plan drops the price to AU$20, AU$10 or free, depending on plan type and duration. Given that it's functionally useless without a plan, we can't see a point in buying it outright.
It's also worth bearing in mind that 3's own X-Series mobiles now offer cheaper data plans than its USB Modem does -- AU$30/month on X-Series will get you 1GB of data per month. Just food for thought in comparative pricing.
Much has been written and made of the performance of HSDPA networks, especially since most carriers have upgraded to 3.6Mbps HSDPA. We've previously tested 3's HSDPA performance in the centre of Sydney and towards North Sydney, and it's no surprise that we quickly got good HSDPA connections in those locations. 3 doesn't disclose where 3.6Mbps HSDPA cells actually are located, but it doesn't take much guesswork to suggest that the centre of the biggest city in Australia might be a good spot to place them. Checking 3's Sydney coverage map, reveals no details as to other cells, just where 3's "Broadband Zone" extends to. In order to see how 3's network performed outside the CBD, we tested in a number of areas between Hornsby, Epping and Parramatta. All but Hornsby are well within the zone, and we expected big things -- and were largely left a bit disappointed.
Closer in towards Epping and North Ryde we struggled to hit 512kbps (according to tests run at DSLreports.com and CNET.com.au's own Broadband Speed Meter), while on the periphery in Hornsby things we worse. Much, much worse, in fact -- dropping at one point to an unusable 16kbps!
The one saving grace in all of this was that the card seemed to work very diligently to maintain a connection, even when we used it in a truly mobile situation while in a car.
We're not entirely sure if our speed woes were down to the network or the Huawei modem itself, however; our original review of the hardware running on the Vodafone HSDPA network noted the same problems of intermittently very low access speeds, while tests with the PC/Express Card variant showed good results. In a sense it's not relevant at the consumer end whether the hardware or network is at fault, as 3 only offers the one USB modem, so you're stuck for actual choice.