The reality of 3G broadband

Back when 3G was being deployed, the massive investment some communications companies made in constructing their next generation networks seemed ludicrous. Now, with the advent of useful smartphones becoming integrated into mainstream society, this provision for a higher speed packet-switched network has become the backbone of non-voice mobile communications.

I’m always a skeptic when new technologies and products are floated – they have to prove themseleves before I will accept them. Thus I am mostly immune to hype, and can normally see through the misleading marketing. So, I have held off buying the latest mobile phones and switching completely to 3G broadband.

3G is seen by many as a replacement for fixed line broadband. At the moment I’m between fixed-line broadband providers (for the past 2 weeks) and have had the choice of no internet, digging out my 56k modem and paying per minute, or giving 3G a try. While no ‘net access would possibly have been good for me, the addict inside me and the coinciding offer of voucher double-up at Tesco led me to purchasing a T-Mobile 3G Broadband giftpack.

T-Mobile seem to be the only provider offering time-based services at a reasonable cost, instead of traffic-based services (pay per GB). 3 months comes bundled with the ~£35 cost of the package, which is pretty attractive for the freedom and backup service it should offer.

However, it seems there is a reason that such offers don’t run the risk of you abusing the essentially unlimited traffic allowance – it’s near impossible to maintain a connection unless you take abnormal measures to keep it alive. Due to the way 3G and most packet-switched/virtual connection networks operate, and to avoid cells becoming unnecessarily busy, connections are only kept alive so long as they are active. If network access is required after an idle period where the connection is ‘dropped’, it transparently reconnects itself. At least this is the theory.

In practice, possibly due to the proliferation of 3G-enabeld devices it’s very hit or miss as to whether I get a live connection in the first place or manage to keep alive one long enough for it to be useful.

To get around this problem as best as possible (it’s still not 100%) I’m using my fileserver as a temporary router, with the dongle plugged into that. A basic firewall interface got the thing working without too much work. With my fileserver being Linux-based, there is one extra step needed – installing usb_modeswitch. This package is available in Ubuntu and once installed ensures that the dongle is placed in modem mode instead of storage mode. To keep the connection alive, I set ping running in continuous mode against a server I run.

After using this for 2 weeks, I can report back a few observations:

  • Multi-tasking is near impossible, so make sure you’re only loading one site at once
  • Images are automatically reprocessed to far lower quality where possible, which is actually a good thing as it makes sites just as quick as normal
  • It is just about possible to play games, in my case L4D2; however don’t expect low pings (200-300 seemed common)
  • Don’t ever consider it as a full-time replacement for a proper fixed line, however as a backup it beats 56k when you’re used to higher speeds
  • By default, certain content is blocked; I’ve not been able to get Windows Live Messenger working despite removing the filtering

I hope this is helpful for anyone who is contemplating doing something along the same lines.

Hopeful improvements to KillerLight

If  you don’t already know, KillerLight is the name of the theme I created for this site, and which is available on Currently it uses JavaScript to do some animation of the header, fading between several images to give the impression of lighting effects. Many people have contacted me (sorry to everyone I’ve not managed to reply to!) about the performance, saying that even on high-spec machines it struggles.

Well, perhaps with the advent of HTML5, specifically the Canvas element, this will hopefuly be improved when I have the time. This new element is designed for graphics rendering, and uses the graphics card to it’s full advantage where possible. This should produce a huge difference in performance. For those without an HTML5 browser, they will see a standard static (non-animated) header.