VoIP Over 3G In The UK

vodafone-3g-usb-modemIn mid-July I traveled to the UK, visiting my employer’s head office in Cambridge. Being away from my home office is in some ways a drag. I’m so accustomed to being in control of my local network, which is certainly not the case when I’m abroad. Suffice it to say that I can’t use anything VoIP related from within the office LAN at HQ, with the possible exception of Skype.

At the hotel where we typically stay near HQ there is wired internet access provided by Swisscom. It’s a decent service, reasonably fast and reliable. However, at 15 Pounds Sterling (around $22 USD!) per 24-hour period it’s also very dear. To get around some of this cost one of my co-workers loaned me a company issued Vodaphone 3G USB dongle. This was the first time that I’d used one of these little gadgets.

Eyebeam-Over-Vodaphone-3GBefore I left home I made sure that my wife had Counterpath’s Eyebeam 1.5 soft phone running on her desktop PC, with a Clear One Chat 50 USB speakerphone attached. I made sure that both G.722 and Speex Wideband were enabled. She really likes to use a speakerphone, and wideband via the Chat 50 makes it a lot easier to hear her over the TV, which is invariably on when she calls.

Late in the evening UK time I would call home via the SIP URI that I setup for her soft phone. The experience of speaking at length via wideband over IP was dramatically better than using my cell phone to call home. In fact, I was surprised at the stability of the 3G wireless connection.

It wasn’t especially fast, or at least it didn’t measure very well at the hotel. A quick test over at http://www.speedtest.net showed to only make 300k/300k. I find that a little suspect since the Vodaphone login client showed me an FTP download happening at >800k.

VODAPHONE-FTP

I was most impressed when we made a day trip by car to a company near Reading. It was over two hours drive from Cambridge, around the M-25. I was able to work online, reading email and FTPing files even as we drove. The access speed along that route was very good indeed.

VODAPHONE-G722-CALL

Later on, as I was on a call to home, I checked the Vodaphone client and it showed me using a steady 80k for each call leg, which is just what I expected when using G.722 over IP. Throughout the week that I was away we had little trouble with calls breaking up as long as I had reasonable 3G signal strength.

I did discover that I don’t especially like the AGC option in Eyebeam. When Stella would pause it ramped up her microphone level until I was getting a blast of TV audio. Then when she spoke again it clamped down hard. Even so, it was handy when she would get up from her desk and move around our den while speaking. In that situation it worked to maintain a constant audio level regardless of her position.

I wonder if anyone has ever built a conference room speakerphone into their home? I can imagine an IP6000 installed in the den, with extension microphones & speakers clandestinely hidden in each major room. Perhaps it could be integrated into the whole house audio system? Or would that be a little too much like Star Trek, where people walk around talking to the ships computer?

She was a little surprised when I took the opportunity one evening to VNC into her desktop PC and turn off the AGC feature, even as we were chatting. I have VPN connectivity back to our home network, which makes such tweaks easy to accomplish. It does occasionally leave here with the impression that there’s a “ghost in the machine.”

One of the things that I noticed about the Vodaphone 3G service was that they process images through some kind of media proxy in an effort to conserve wireless bandwidth. In looking at various web sites it appeared that JPEG, GIF and PNG images were on-the-fly transcoded to very low image quality, and even reduced in bit-depth.

The result was a kind of solarized appearance. This had no impact on text, but rendered some images quite ugly. It must soak up considerable hardware resource to process every image before transmission. I wonder if they would be better off putting their resources into enhancing overall network capacity?

So my initial experience with 3G wireless internet access was not bad. As someone who spends a considerable amount of time in hotels paying for internet access I may be able to make a case for adding a 3G USB dongle to my T-Mobile account. Even if it doesn’t work everywhere the $60/mo is about the same as just a few days access at a decent hotel. If it works reliably then it may even reduce the number of minutes that I need on my cell phone every month.

hp-mini-2140-netbook1The little MiFi 3G router device has also been making a big splash with Verizon and Sprint customers. That little device, an alternative to the USB dongle, acts like a Wifi AP, backhauling the connection over the 3G wireless service. It’s advantage over the USB dongle being that it allows the connection to be shared by up to five wifi-enabled devices.

If such as device is available for GSM networks like T-Mobile’s then perhaps that’s the route I should choose. It might allow me to finally use the little Quickphones QA-342 SIP/Wifi handset, or at least share the 3G access between my laptop & netbook.

  • Will Collins

    I use one of these 3G cards on a daily basis. I switch between an AT&T, a Sprint, and a Verizon card (depending upon where I am going that day). They all work well but Sprint takes the cake for fastest connection and availability. The Verizon cards will roam on Sprint’s network and vice-versa but not at full speed. AT&T is fast but not always the best coverage.

    Once the contracts are over I will be investigating using Virgin Mobile’s card which should just be using Sprint’s network. It is only $45 a month for unlimited (they don’t really say if there is a 5GB limit like the others).

    I would avoid T-Mobile’s 3G. The coverage is horrible unless you want it to slow down to dial-up like speeds which are not going to work for VOIP. T-Mobile charges the same but really can’t compete for coverage. Maybe in another 3 years (the time it takes to build out a nationwide 3G network). But by that time, Verizon will have LTE coverage everywhere and for a cheap price.

    If budget allows, the best one is Clear’s card which works in WiMax(4G) where available and then switches to Sprint’s 3G network when 4G is not available. Really fast and my personal favorite. But it is pricey at $80/month before taxes.

    Hope this helps.

    • Is the Sprint offer $45/mo when you already have a voice contract? Or also without? I’d like to stay with T-Mobile for Voice as I need GSM for when I travel, but could get mobile internet separately through Sprint.

  • Will Collins

    Sprint’s $45/month is only available as part of the Sprint Referral Plan (you have to search for it). Or you can get the same rate through a corporate plan. Virgin Mobile (which just resells Sprint’s service) apparently has switched to a Pay as You GO plan. However, Cricket Wireless which roams on Verizon and Sprint just launched a $40/month unlimited broadband plan.

    All data cards are separate from Voice plans (literally a separate contract length). However, you can bundle them with most voice plans and save $5 or $10 a month. But if you like T-Mobile for your Voice plan, keep that and just pick up a data card from one of the other providers (since they are just separate contract).

    If you travel outside the US, you should buy an unlocked card and then just purchase a SIM card upon arriving at the country. International data roaming is not like Voice roaming. It is insanely expensive (I have seen $5000 bills for using wireless cards and iPhones in Europe). So now I just keep an unlocked card and then just have the employee purchase a SIM card. That would be similar to what you were using on Vodafone.

    • Will,

      That’s great info! Many thanks!

      Michael

  • psychoboy

    Been traveling to Ireland 1-2 times per year for the last 14 years and the prepaid sim has been the way to go. One tip I would add is that if you want to keep your number, like me, as I am there, with the wife, visiting the inlaws at least once a year, so I just top up via the internet about 180 days out (I set myself a reminder at 170 days) 5 or 10 euro and we keep our same numbers active indefinitely.

  • Martin

    I’ve been using the 3g network (3,5g actually, as my provider offers HSDPA) to make SIP calls for a while now. I live in Europe where 3g coverage is pretty decent, so taking advantage of the speedy network together with a Nokia smartphone that includes an integrated SIP client, I’m able to connect to my VOIP provider and call international numbers for up to 80% cheaper than over the wireless carrier. The call quality is best if I stay within reach of the same NodeB, but if the 3g signal is good enough, then it also works when walking or driving around town.
    Since parts of my family already jumped on the IP telephony bandwagon and are using IP phones (Gigaset mostly), whenever I call their home number I’m able to completely avoid using the mobile carrier’s voice routes.
    To be able to do this, you have to have a decent monthly data transfer limit, since one minute of a SIP call uses about 1,2 MB. For me that’s not a big issue, since my provider offers 1gb of 3g data for about 3 EUR a month, so after satisfying my calling needs, there’s still plenty of room for email, vpn and all my other usual online business.
    Roaming is a completely different story, as data tends to get really expensive abroad. Until the data roaming prices get to an acceptable level, the usage of mobile internet telephony remains confined to my home country, which for now is acceptable.

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