Just as bad as I remember…

a CrossCountry train

I haven’t been on a CrossCountry train for a while now, so on a recent trip to Cheltenham Spa from Bristol Temple Meads I was interested to see how the 3G connectivity issues I’ve always had on that route would be like, especially as I now have 4G with Three.

Well same old problems, dipping in and out from 4G to 3G as well as periods of No Service.

I would like to blame the train, but the reality is that there is poor phone signal connectivity on that route. As there is no incentive for mobile network providers to improve connectivity.

If I do go to Cheltenham again, I think I will take a book!

Yay, unlimited tethering

iphone 6s plus Photo credit: Yanki01 via Visual Hunt / CC BY

I can’t quite believe it, but I can now use all of my data allowance for tethering on my Three mobile phone contract. There was a 4GB monthly limit before, but now I can use all of my data allowance for tethering, and as I have an unlimited data contract, that means I have unlimited tethering.

Yay!

I was very pleased when I moved to Three in 2015 having been with EE and before that T-Mobile for many (many) years. There were quite a few reasons I moved to Three, the first was that for the previous few years we had been living in broadband hell with a terrible 1Mb/s ADSL pipe. My contact with EE was only 3G and I had had it for a fair while, but even then I reached my 2GB fair use limit quite often. The main challenge though was EE coverage at our house which was fine for phone calls, but 3G only worked when the phone was in certain places in the house!

So with all those reasons I decided to move mobile phone providers to Three. My main requirements were, 4G connectivity and unlimited data.

3G was fine for e-mail and general browsing, but for streaming video, and steady HD video at that a 4G connection was preferable.

Though I don’t mind data limits, I do think having a limit constrains how you use data on a device, turning off updates, 

So I managed to get a SIM only unlimited data contract with Three for just £17 per month, which I thought was very good value for money. The constraint at the time was a 4GB limit for tethering.

I use tethering when travelling, but I also used it at home when I needed some bandwidth, as back then I had a slow ADSL connection, less than 1Mb/s.

I reflected on the arrival of 4G earlier, in 2012 when it was launched in the UK. Back then, the tariffs from EE were quite expensive, £36 per month would get you just 500MB of data. That was one of the key reasons I didn’t upgrade my EE account to 4G (and I didn’t have a 4G device).

So £17 for unlimited 4G data for me seemed like a good deal. After having the phone and contract for a while and running out of data on the odd month, I did decide to get a data booster which gave me an additional 6GB personal hotspot, which at the time cost me an additional £6 per month (now £8 per month). I did that for a few months, before cancelling, as though it was useful, I didn’t think it was value for money.

A couple of years ago, Three changed their unlimited data deal to include 30GB of tethering, I was tempted, but it was a lot more expensive than the £17 per month I was paying. I didn’t think that was worth it for the odd month when I needed more than 4Gb of tethering. I was also on the edge of getting a fibre connection at home, so that was negate the need to tether at home.

Once I had FTTC, streaming video at home became much easier, so less need to use my mobile data contract for streaming. The same was said for the bandwidth for other things such as Skype.

Since I got FTTC I have only run out of tethering a few times, and one of those times it was a mistake. 

Having a limit on tethering meant that when tethering I would try and avoid high bandwidth activities on the laptop and switch to the phone. So now having unlimited tethering means I don’t need to worry anymore.

Yay!

Check out Three mobile contracts.

Melting the Wi-Fi

The canal in Birmingham

Back in the early noughties I remember attending edtech conferences and the wifi failing to cope with the number of delegates. That wasn’t surprising, they were often using a single wireless access point and when sixty plus edtech delegates hit the event with their laptops and PDAs it wasn’t much of a surprise to find the lone access point failing to deliver any wifi.

Even today I have been to events where the wifi struggles as delegates with their laptops, iPads, smartphones connect to the wifi. It is partly about the number of devices, it is also about how they are using the connection, refreshing twitter, uploading photographs, streaming video like Periscope. I also think that some people may take advantage of the fast connection (sometimes inadvertently) to download updates, podcasts and video.

The canal in Birmingham

At the recent UCISA Spotlight on the Digital Capabilities event in Birmingham, the conference centre wifi, which in theory could cope with 250 wireless clients, failed to deliver a stable consistent wifi connection. I found that if my laptop was connected to the wifi, it not only took time to get a connection, but every so often the connection would drop. I would say that when I had a connection it was fast and consistent. I felt lucky that I could still tweet and upload photographs using my phone on my Three 4G connection. I was getting over 60Mb/s on that connection in the main auditorium. I was quite pleased that the seats in the auditorium had tables and power sockets.

60Mb/s

The thing is, a conference with delegates from the edtech world are probably going to melt the wifi as most conference centres don’t plan their capacity on the extremes. For most events it probably works just fine. Personally since those early days I have come less and less to rely on the conference wifi, using a 3G dongle, 3G tethering, a 4G WiFI Hotspot to my current 4G tethering. This means that not only do I not worry so much about melting wifi, but it frees up the bandwidth for somebody else, and I think I might a pretty heavy user of bandwidth!

4G’ing it

iphone 6s plus Photo credit: Yanki01 via Visual Hunt / CC BY

I have now been on Three for nearly six months and I am still pleased with the speed of the connection and reliability of the service.

In some areas I am getting nearly 50Mb download speeds.

Download speeds

There are some days when the connection appears to stall, but this is short lived.

I am on an unlimited data contract with Three. This appears to be a full unlimited contract with no “artificial” limits or throttling.

On my previous original T-Mobile (now EE) contract I would usually use less than 2GB. This was partly down to the speed of the 3G connection. On the Three connection I am now using on average 35GB of data. In at least one month I used in excess of 50GB.

As my home broadband is rather slow, I am now using my iPhone connected to the TV via an HDMI adapter for services such as iPlayer, Netflix and other on demand services (well the ones that work through the adapter). As the connection is quite fast, I am able to stream HD video, which probably explains the high data usage!

Nov – 30GB
Dec – 22GB
Jan – 50GB
Feb – 41GB
Mar – 35GB

Checking the bills I used over 7GB on the 7th January, no idea what was happening that day.

There are some aspects that I find frustrating, however these are more down to limitations imposed by others. For example Apple don’t allow you to download software updates, large app updates, movies and TV shows over mobile data, you have to use WiFi. However as my internet contract is much slower compared to the potential speeds I can get on 4G this means that it can be frustrating when I need to download large files.

In terms of signal, one of the reasons I chose Three was the coverage they have for my home address and over Bristol. In other places it has been somewhat sketchy, but was pleased to get a decent signal in Dublin for a conference (and no roaming charges) other places I wasn’t surprised as it was rather rural.

I will say I wasn’t disappointed with the signal of T-Mobile, especially when they merged with Orange. However the lack of an unlimited data contract on 4G meant that I didn’t see it as an option. Though 3G was okay, I do appreciate the faster speeds you get with 4G.

Photo credit: Yanki01 via Visual Hunt / CC BY

Reducing Roaming Costs

Royal Hospital Kilmainham

Last week I was in Dublin for the LILAC 16 conference. The last time I was in Ireland was in 2012. Back then I was on an EE contract and when I arrived at Dublin Airport I tuned flight mode on, on my iPhone as I didn’t want to incur huge roaming charges. There was quite a few press stories (and still are now and again) on people taking their smartphones abroad and racking up huge charges in their phones because of the way modern phones use data. I spent the week using wifi and making the odd call home when needed.

Since then there has been new EU legislation on roaming charges. I also have moved away from EE and have a new contract with Three using an iPhone 6S Plus. The contract gives me unlimited data on the phone as well as unlimited texts and a generous number of minutes, well who uses their phones for making calls these days?

So before this visit to Dublin I checked the Three website and was pleasantly surprised to find out that I could use my phone abroad with no extra costs!

So before this visit to Dublin I checked the Three website and was pleasantly surprised to find out that I could use my phone abroad with no extra costs!

Though I have an unlimited plan, there are some restrictions when using my plan abroad.

If you have all-you-can-eat data you can use up to 12GB. If you have all-you-can-eat texts you can send up to 5,000 texts.

So during my visit I was able to easily join the Three Ireland network, make calls, send texts and use data with no problems or worries. Though it has to be said the UCD enduros wifi network was excellent and faster than the Three 3G network, whilst the 3G was faster and more reliable than the hotel network. As I was there only three days, the 12GB allowance was more than enough.

After I got back I got a text from Three. According to them I saved £56.36 which was nice.

According to them I saved £56.36 which was nice.

Finally, free FGW wifi on the train

London Paddington

As I write this, this morning, I am using the free wifi courtesy of First Great Western on their High Speed Trains.

IMG_3446 3

You have been able to use wifi on their Cotswold line Adelante trains for a while now, but FGW announced last year they were finally rolling out wifi across their fleet of High Speed Trains on the Great Western mainline. The carriages are been revamped and upgraded and when they are they are having wifi fitted. You can tell if your carriage has been upgraded as they have white domes fitted into the roof.

IMG_4285

The speed, as you might expect travelling at 125mph is inconsistent, but having done a speed test I was hanging to get between 5-9 Mbps which is more than reasonable. I was also able to stream video using YouTube and iPlayer. CrossCountry for example block streaming video services on their “you have to pay for it” wifi. Upload speeds were less than 1Mbps, so you may not want to spend your train journey uploading photographs and video.

fgwtrain

The train this morning is quite empty, it will be interesting to see how the experience changes as the train fills up as we head to London. I suspect I might be the only person using it at this time, what would happen if we had 84 people in the carriage all trying to watch BBC iPlayer.

As I travelled down the line, you noticed variation in the speed and experience. As I would have expected, the connection was quite flay as we went through the Box Tunnel between Bath and Chippenham.

Over the last few years I have written quite a bit about travelling and connectivity, both in terms of wifi on trains, but also using 3G (and now 4G).

Back in 2007 I wrote an article, This is the age of the train… talking about the refurbishment by FGW, then I said

Do you think I should point out to First Great Western that some train operators provide free wireless on their trains, or do you think that would be pushing it?”

After seven years, it looks like FGW finally listened…

Again in 2010 I wrote another article about train travel and communication

As I travel I like to try and get some work done in the time I have available. One key aspect of my job is communication and for that I need a decent internet connection. First Great Western, unlike some other train operating companies does not provide wifi on their services.

I went onto say

One thing I have noticed though is that though my 3G connection from Bristol to London is pretty good, travelling on the Voyager trains from Bristol to Birmingham, the signal is really poor. I initially thought this was just down to the route, but I have heard that the main issue is the construction of the train and the metallised windows. This basically blocks the 3G signal!

At this time, CrossCountry did not provide wifi, and I discussed this a few months later after the previous post.

I did wonder why CrossCountry Trains didn’t put in wifi as you find on the East Coast Main Line services and Virgin Trains Pendolino. Well it appears that providing wifi was part of their Franchise agreement with the Department of Transport. CrossCountry Trains was suppose to have wifi in place by November 11th 2009. They failed to meet this deadline and the revised deadline of the end of January 2009.

Eventually CrossCountry did put wifi into their trains, which I discovered in 2012 when I travelled with them to Birmingham,

I realised it must have been some time since I last travelled with Cross Country as on my most recent trip with them I was astonished and surprised to find that there was wifi…

A year later I did moan a little about the flakiness of their wifi and why I wasn’t going to renew my subscription.

My main reason was that the last couple of hours was rather flaky and I often had dropped connections. With that kind of connectivity then I might as well rely on 3G and not pay any extra money.

I am still a little astonished it has taken First Great Western until 2014 (and it won’t be complete until 2015), over eight years, to put wifi into their trains, they know that their customers wanted it as did the regulator. We have had wifi in planes for a while, and they travel a little faster and higher than trains. Will the travelling public use the wifi, what with 4G and 3G so much more commonplace than back in 2007?

I should also say that I am still impressed that I can connect to the internet whilst travelling at over a hundred miles per hour.

Dodgy 3G

Nexus One

Earlier this week I was without 3G on my home mobile phone. Trying to use it resulted a “failed to connect to server error”. I certainly had signal and it wasn’t even working in areas where I know it should work.

My initial thought was that the T-Mobile (EE) network had fallen over, but with no one else reporting issues it was only me having the problem.

What I found out later was that I had exceeded my “fair use” limit on my unlimited 3G plan. This has only happened once or twice before and I was, then, able to get a free booster to extend my limit.

This time though the SMS messages I received from EE, the pages I was redirected to on the phone, did not indicate that I had reached my limit. In the end I guessed I must have as it was almost the day my 3G fair use limit resets.

Most of the day I was unable to access the boosters page, but in the evening on the way home, it did (finally) appear on the mobile browser and I was able to get 3G.

I think part of the issue is I have quite an old legacy plan, which isn’t really able to be matched by newer plans, hence my reluctance to upgrade. This probably means that when I run out of 3G, the redirects don’t work as they should, as so few people are using them. I know it has only happened once or twice before for me.

One day I might upgrade, especially when 4G is more prevalent, or even cancel, if FGW get their WiFi act together this year, as I generally use 3G more on the train then anywhere else.

Oops, used too much 3G, but it wasn’t me!

Though I have a legacy “unlimited” 3G contract with T-Mobile (EE who are EE) it would be apparent that I have reached the fair use limit of 3GB this month. Now the reason I have gone over the limit was for a range of reasons, but the main culprits are streaming podcasts, updates for Windows and a system update for my Nexus 7.

With my new commute, I have not had the time to download podcasts and have been using BeyondPod on my Nexus 7 to stream podcasts over the internet. This does work most of the time, but of course would have quite a negative impact on bandwidth.

I also have been using a new laptop, an Acer Windows 7 machine, but of course didn’t check the update settings and as a result it has been downloading updates in the background! Well got that changed pretty sharpish, but too late for reducing the impact on my 3G bandwidth limit.

What T-Mobile do when you reach your limit, is give you a “free” 250MB booster, which I thought would be fine for a few days. What I didn’t take into account was my Nexus 7 downloading the 4.3 Android update, which was 158MB. Now what I don’t get is that my Nexus is already at 4.3 and has downloaded this update a fair few times now!

As a result for the next few days I am probably going to be without 3G… well now I will need to rely on free wifi at stations. I am slightly annoyed (only slightly mind you) as my 3G coverage has been quite poor this month, I do believe that the main reason has been other people sucking up the bandwidth, was quite impressed with 3G speeds when I took a later, quieter train.

Now do I move over to 4G?

Tethering

Nexus One

One of the reasons I like and still use my Google Nexus One, despite it’s age, is that I can use it for tethering. I am also lucky to have a legacy mobile phone contract that means tethering is included as part of my monthly payment.

I actually thought that I had unlimited data, but when I was on holiday and I did a fair bit of video streaming over 3G I did for the first time ever get a text from my phone company telling me I was reaching my fair usage data limit. This actually surprised me as I didn’t think I had a data limit.

Generally the connection is very good with very little latency. I have encountered a couple of issues that happen enough to be annoying.

The first one is when the connection just seems to stop. I am assuming that this is something to do with the 3G connection, and usually very quickly it comes back. Can be annoying when streaming video or if you are in the middle of posting a blog post.

The second issue is that the 3G connection just dies and stops working. The only resolution is to reboot the phone and start all over again.

It is only a 3G connection and until there is a lot more 4G (and it is a lot cheaper) I think I will continue with my current solution. Battery life isn’t perfect, but it generally lasts me for my daily needs and when I need more juice I plug the phone via USB into my laptop.

I like tethering over a dongle as a dongle can only be used by a single laptop, whereas with my phone, my laptop and iPad can be used at the same time, really aids productivity for me.

Haven no wifi

Yorkshire Coast

On a recent short break at Haven Holidays’ Primrose Valley I was impressed that there was wifi across the site, including the entertainment complex and encouragingly in the caravans across the site.

Alas it wasn’t free.


Well you could have 15 minutes for free each day, and then you could pay for more if you needed.

Well 15 minutes is okay to quickly check e-mail or the Twitter, but nowhere near enough to stream an episode of Doctor Who or similar on BBC iPlayer.

I did check prices, and thought £15 for four days, wasn’t too bad. Before I parted with my money though I wanted to check how fast it was. So I signed up for my free 15 minutes and was very disappointed, very slow and much slower than my 3G connection was. It was about 1Mb down and a lot less up. I was mainly interested in using the wifi to upload photographs to Flickr.

So I decided not to use the free wifi and stick with 3G.

Towards the end of the break I “accidently” connected to the free wifi and this time was quite pleased with the speed of the connection. It was much faster than before. I wonder if the poor connection I initially had was either down to lots of other guests trying out and using the free wifi (probably unlikely) or the awful weather, cold, wind, snow we were having at the time?

In the end I think if I had my latter experience to begin with I would have paid the £15.