Expensive 3G datacards have not taken off among corporate users, but falling prices might make them worth a second look.
First launched by cellular operators at the start of last year, 3G datacards let users access e-mail and the internet via their laptops when away from their offices and out of range of WiFi (Wireless Fidelity) hotspots.
Although the connection speed is slower than broadband, datacards can be a useful tool for business travellers or even homeworkers.
3G can be seen as an alternative to WiFi, although users might believe they do not need it when travelling because of the preponderance of hotspots in locations such as hotels and airports. Although 3G is slower, it should eventually have wider coverage because it is a ubiquitous cellular network unlike hotspots.
This spring, many mobile operators launched dual-mode 3G datacards that also give access to Wifi hotspots. However, most operators do not own large numbers of hotspots so their datacards guide users to the slower 3G whenever it is available.
An exception is T-Mobile, which in the US and Europe offers both 3G and WiFi networks through a single tariff package.
In another important difference between the two technologies, 3G is always tariffed, whereas WiFi can be free.
In terms of charges, a few points are worth remembering. Mobile operators always charge a one-off fee for the actual card, in addition to a monthly subscription. This fee can vary, for instance in Europe, between €15 and €400, depending on choice of tariff package and length of contract.
Secondly, with monthly subscriptions, cellular operators usually charge a flat-rate tariff, varying from €60 to €120 for unlimited consumption, although most operators have a fair-usage policy which usually sets a ceiling of 1,000Mb. Charges at the lower end of this range will often set a usage limit, expressed in Mb.
It is worth calculating how much you are likely to use the datacard.
Bear in mind, if you are buying it mainly to check e-mail that the usage figures refer to data received as well as sent. As a rule of thumb, downloading or sending a single e-mail uses only 2Kb to 5Kb, whereas an attachment might consume 150Kb on its own.
Exceeding a monthly allowance will mean paying what is known as a run-on rate. This is to be avoided, as it is several times as expensive as the inclusive monthly charge. Likewise the roaming rate in foreign countries is several times more expensive than the domestic charge.
But prices are coming down and more flexible tariffs being introduced.
In the US, Verizon Wireless has cut its unlimited monthly access charge by 25 per cent to $60.
Some operators such as Orange in the UK and France already let users pay just for what they consume each month. And Vodafone is introducing a pre-paid tariff across all its markets.
Operators finally seem to have picked up what their customers have been saying about pricing.