[This should be moved to the Tech Talk board]
Does anyone out there use a mobile, USB in laptop style broadband service? If so, how good is it, and what does it cost?
Any advice much appreciated from one returning to China after a long absence.
I am also interested in this question. I am looking at it more as a backup to the Internet that is provided to me by the university than anything - but it is certainly not unknown for us to lose access altogether at times (for a couple of days last time) and at other times I would like to have good mobile access to Internet when I am not at home. What are the options available to us for wireless access to the Internet?
I've got some experience with this issue with all 3 telecom companies, though maybe not so much advice on prices, and some of this is dated. This will probably be long, so I'll put my takeaway advice here at the top: I wouldn't rely on any of the 3G as a primary internet service, but they're great, as teacheraus suggests, as a back up or supplemental service.
So here got, but first some background on the current landscape here: Here's a list of the 3 telecom companies and what mobile systems they currently offer:
A. China Mobile 2G: GSM, EDGE 3G: TD-CDMA (a Chinese self-developed system)
B. China Unicom 2G: GSM 3G: WCDMA
C. China Telecom 2G-CDMA 3G: CDMA2000
1. My first experience was a number of years ago (5 or 6) with China Mobile. (I.e. this was pre-3G so is dated, but may be still relevant as explained later.) I was working on a translation project with a local newspaper where they would send the top 5 daily news articles to a translation company by 10:00 am each morning. The translation company would translate the articles from Chinese to Chinglish and send them to me by 2:00 pm. I had to "translate" them from Chinglish to English (i.e. polish" them) and send them to the newspaper by a 5:00 pm deadline. Because of the tight deadlines, I asked for and received, gratis, a USB dongle with internet service from China Mobile which provided instant access anywhere. I don't know the cost because it was given to me and there were no limits on usage that I was aware of. I never failed to immediately connect anywhere (including out of province, on trains and buses, and once a boat). The translation company would SMS me when they had emailed the Chinglish version, I'd pop the dongle into my laptop (which meant I was always carrying the laptop every afternoon), I'd log on, get the email, polish the articles and send them on. 90% of my usage was email/text related and the GSM service was fast enough for that. I'd occasionally use the Internet to check references and stuff and, compared to today, was somewhat slow. But for back then, it wasn't bad. It was GSM then, but is now EDGE (G2.5) unless you subscribe to China Mobile's 3G service. Just about everyone I know trashes China Mobile's current 3G service as slower than the other two plus it's a China-only service built by China. (As an aside, there were numerous electric blackouts that summer and I was really glad to have the USB so I could connect even when I was home in my apt. and the power went out.)
I worked on that project for 6 months but didn't renew my contract with them because the everyday 5:00 pm deadlines put a crimp in my afternoons. They let me keep the dongle, but it stopped working a month or two later. As it was provided to me by the newspaper, I have no idea of cost, but that would be irrelevant now. However, the info on EDGE may still be useful as I'll explain below in Part 4.
2. In April 2009, when the Chinese companies all started 3G, I decided to splurge and get one. As the 3 systems were new, no one was quite sure which was the best, but a friend of mine in the business recommend I get a CDMA2000 service through China Telecom. He arranged a deal through a friend of his and I got an 1800 RMB package for 1360RMB. That included the cost of the USB dongle. I wasn't using it as a primary service, but for times when I had no access. I can't remember what level I got but it was based upon usage (Gbs used) and I guesstimated how much I might use in a year. It ended up using it all up in about 10 months, but that was because I used it out-of-province for two months and, I learned, data usage gets charged a kind of "roaming rate" when you are out of town. I didn't renew it, mainly out of laziness and because a few months later, option 3 came along. For this service (China Telecom-CDMA2000) the speed was excellent, even with video) and I had no trouble accessing the internet anywhere, anytime.
3. Last year, and up until the end of August, I was using a China Unicom 3G USB dongle (WCDMA). It was capped at 1G data usage per month. If you used up the 1G, it stopped working until the beginning of the next month although you could stop by a China Unicom store and add money, just like a regular SIM card.
(Actually this one and the previous one worked by inserting a SIM card from the provider into the USB dongle. As I recall, the first one just acted as a modem and connected to China Mobile's service and you had to log in through your browser to starts it up. I believe all three 3G services now operate using SIM cards and you just plug it in and click connect.)
The speed on the latest one was lightning fast-just a bit slower than a regular Wifi connection. I also liked this one, because it came with an entire English interface and you could easily track your usage. This one was a yearly plan but was given to me by a manager from Nokia as a gift so the cost had been pre-paid by Nokia. He gave it to me 2 or 3 months after Nokia had gotten it, so I didn't get a full year usage out of it. I only completely used up the 1G/month once-when I was in the hospital for two weeks. The hospital had no internet at all for patients so I was using this as my main service for those two weeks and ran through the 1G pretty quickly. Otherwise, I rarely came close to suing 1G in any month. Unfortunately, the previous month's balance doesn't carry over. You star from 0 on the first day of every month. Obviously, since Nokia paid for it, I have no idea what the cost is. (Nokia is also a partner with China Unicom and they probably get some of these from China Unicom as part of their arrangement so this may not be a regular China Unicom plan.)
4. In between those times when I didn't have the services/USB described above, I've had (and learned how to use) mobile phones that I could tether to my laptop. Early on in China, I had Sony-Ericsson phones and later Nokia phones that came with software/drivers and a USB adaptor so you could connect the phone to your laptop and use the phone as your modem to connect to the internet. Most smartphones these days can do this, if you just take the time to RTFM that comes with the phones. The connection you get is based upon your phone's connection NOT the phone's capability. For example, I still use China Mobile's GSM/EDGE on my phone even though it is 3G capable. I do this because I want to keep the same phone number I've had for 10 years. Moving my phone to China Unicom and 3G would require a new phone number, something I've chosen not to do. So if I need an internet connection and none is available, I can simply connect my phone to the laptop and connect through my phone number. I get EDGE speed back like 5 or 6 years ago (told you I'd get to it) so it's no match for 3G, but for basic web surfing, even with graphics it's acceptable and email is a cinch. Obviously, I should know about cost on this, because it comes in every month on my phone bill, but here's the thing - and I have no idea how this happened which is why I want to keep my current number and service - about 4 years ago I started noticing something on my bill. Every month, my internet usage was capped at 200 RMB no matter how much I used. If I used less, it was charged at that, but if it went over 200RMB, they capped it at 200RMB. As an example, from last month's bill, my internet usage through the phone (both directly and usually connected as a modem to my laptop) was about 670RMB, but they backed out 470RMB of that. Again, I have no idea how this started or why-it's nothing I did, but it's been that way. The only thing I can think of is that around the same time, I kept getting messages in Chinese that said I should come in and get a new VIP SIM card. I use the Go Tone service of China Mobile, by the way. I went in and got this new SIM card in my phone. So maybe this is just a VIP service. I don't know. But in the last 4 years, I've never paid more than 200RMB/month for internet, albeit at EDGE speeds.
Anyway, there's another option if you just want to use 3G/EDGE as a backup system-just learn how to use your phone as a modem (it's in the manual) but check with your phone company as to how internet service gets charged. It'll save you the cost of the USB dongle (which they do charge for as part of your package).
5. The last thing about 3G service I should mention is that on the latest G and D trains, the China Unicom WCDMA 3G service disintegrates once the train reaches about 200 KPH so you'll lose your connection on trains if your using it. (Phone service sometimes goes out too at higher speeds I've noticed too from the amount of "Wei? Wei?" I hear on when the train is up to speed.
6. Free Internet is widespread in China. Every bar and cafe has it. Even the lowest quality hotels offer at least a broadband connection in every room. The only exceptions, surprisingly or not, are the western-owned 5 star hotels (Intercontinental, JW Marriott, etc>) which still think they're back home and charge 50+ RMB for 30 minutes of surf time both in the rooms and in the restaurants, cafes and bars within. If you need a quick internet connection, just find a local cafe, pop in and buy a cuppa. Even the Starbukc in China offer free internet, unlike back home. So it really is pretty easy to find a connection.
7. Lastly, at last, in many cities, I've found both China Mobile and China Telecom showing up on my laptop's WiFi when I turn it on. When you try to connect, it sends your browser to the provider's webpage and offers you the option of connecting to their system directly. No modem, no USB necessary. In other words, the providers themselves are providing a blanket WiFi connection throughout the city. The webpages are in Chinese, but I muddled through it once to see how it worked and you type in your phone number and tell it how many minutes you'd like to use it. It then charges your phone account for that amount (and I don't recall the rates). It sends an SMS to your phone with a code. You type in the code on your browser and you're connected for those minutes. You can log off and log back in later using that code and when you run out of minutes, the code stops working. Simple as that. No hardware needed.
Anyway, if you're planning on using 3G as your main internet connection, it's going to be costly. But it's nice to have as a backup. Still, you can use the provider's own WiFi (as described in (7) if you can maneuver through their website. And if you take the time to read your phone's manual and go through the one time process of setting up your phone to use as a modem with your laptop, that's the simplest solution-but check the charging rates with your provider first.