A mobile wifi device can be useful, but it can easily become expensive

Wifi iconBeing able to connect a computer to the internet via the “personal hotspot” feature of a mobile phone is very useful to me when helping my IT Support clients. Sometimes, though, and for reasons I can’t explain, it’s not possible to connect to the phone’s wifi. That is why I still carry a dedicated mobile wifi device with me when making client visits. This seems to offer better connectivity and it provides reassurance in a “belt and braces” way.

My mobile wifi device was getting very old and slow (just like me), so I recently succumbed to EE’s marketing blurb about renewing my long-expired plan, and ended up with a better deal and a new device. Not only that, but I was gobsmacked when DPD actually managed to follow delivery instructions and call me on the mobile when they were outside my door with my brand new device (that would, of course, have just gone through the letterbox if someone would just teach these delivery people how to effect that difficult manoeuvre).

EE data remaining

What? Where did it all go?

So, I set it up, played with it for a while and eventually got back to what I was meant to be doing. An hour or so later I realised that I was still connected to the mobile wifi and not my router. Out of curiosity I checked how much I had used it in the previous hour and was horrified to discover that I’d used nearly 4gb of my 5gb monthly allowance in just one hour. I couldn’t understand it. I’d not done anything on the internet of any significance data-wise in that time.

I knew that Windows was aware that my mobile wifi is a “metered connection”. As such, it is supposed to be careful about not performing internet tasks (such as downloading updates) that would seriously eat into an expensive mobile allowance. Then I checked the “programs and features” option in Control Panel to see if there was any evidence there of any programs updating in the previous hour. Nothing. Next, I wondered if my Synology Network Attached Storage had done a big backup to OneDrive. No, that backup is continuous and I hadn’t recently done anything big.

Dropbox logo

Dropbox automatically uploads data – even on a metered connection

Hmm. After more digging into my backup routines (which, of course, you forget about in the months since setting them up), I realised that I had a routine performing a periodic encrypted backup of essential files that sent the backup to my Dropbox account. And that was it – once a month and it chose that hour to do it. All 4gb of it.

I was very surprised that Dropbox would function like this on a metered connection, so did some digging and found that I’m definitely not the first person to fall into this trap. It seems that Dropbox is NOT aware of metered connections.

On further reflection, I also realised something else about mobile wifi. Uploads as well as downloads are counted as data used from the allowance. This has probably always been the case, but I assumed that only downloads are counted as that is how data allowances used to be calculated on metered broadband connections when we first had the internet. I think that was because almost all domestic internet traffic used to be downloads. That, of course, is no longer the case.

So, I learned a few things that day:

  • Not to forget to switch back from a mobile wifi connection to a broadband connection as soon as possible
  • To stay aware if using mobile wifi that some routines can gobble up your allowance in a flash
  • That mobile wifi uploads are as expensive as downloads
  • That DPD can actually follow instructions sometimes

PS: talk of DPD reminds me that I heard a good joke on “The News Quiz” recently to the effect that Amazon are no longer in the business of home delivery. These days, it’s more akin to fly-tipping.

Mobile wifi has been around for a while, but has its time now come?

WiFi LogoDo you remember the days before laptops had in-built wifi adaptors? It used to be quite common to buy a mobile data plan, with its own SIM, that worked by connecting a “dongle” (containing the SIM card) into a USB port of a laptop. I seem to remember that this used to work reasonably well. Somewhere along the way, though, these seem to have lost favour. When I asked my mobile provider (EE) about it recently, they said that they no longer support such devices.

In large part, they probably went out of popular use as laptops began to be supplied with their own wifi adaptor. These could easily be connected to one’s own wifi router or to the wifi supplied in ever-increasing numbers of public locations. However, I have now found that some mobile providers do still offer “data dongles”. See the one illustrated from Vodafone.

EE Osprey Mobile WiFi

EE Osprey Mobile WiFi

So why do I mention this now? Well, when iPads first came out, I advised buying a version that included the ability to take a SIM card for a dedicated mobile data plan. This would give the same facility as plugging in a USB dongle with a SIM card (which can’t, of course, be done with an iPad as there’s no USB connectivity). My reasoning was that it is probably worth the ridculous £100 extra on the price of the iPad just to be able to connect to the internet wherever there is a 3G (or, now, 4G) signal. That’s what I bought for myself and it worked well. Move on a while, and I now have a Microsoft Surface that I carry with me for work. It is essential that I am self-sufficient with a wifi connection, so I asked EE if I could buy a USB dongle so as to put the SIM from my iPad into my Surface (the Surface can’t directly take a SIM).

EE said they don’t support the dongles any more but I could buy a “mobile wifi”. This takes a mobile data SIM and trasnsmits a wifi signal that can be connected to by up to 10 devices in the area. This is great because there are no physical connections (so it’s not taking up the only USB slot on a Microsoft Surface, for example) and it means that ANY device or computer that can connect to a wifi signal can access it without any software or setting up (other than knowing the name (SSID) of the mobile wifi and its password). I know that these devices have been around for quite a while but they’ve never been anything like widespread.

Vodafone Data Dongle

Vodafone Data Dongle

So I bought one and I’m well pleased with it. I’ve been getting speeds of up to 15mbit/sec on mine. This is twice as fast as at least half of the standard domestic ADSL broadband connections that I see among my computer support clients. The connection is usually stable and it produces a good enough signal that I don’t even take it out of my bag: I just turn it on and connect to it wirelessly in the normal way.

It also means that I’m not having to choose between my iPad and Surface for internet connectivity. In fact, up to 10 devices can typically connect to one mobile wifi at a time. I just need to make sure I’ve got the mobile wifi with me and that it’s charged. It is charged via a standard micro USB connection in about an hour or so.

There’s another use I put it to, and that is that I now routinely connect to the internet in cafes and other public places via my mobile wifi and not via the “free” wifi provided in those establishments. And there are two very good reasons why I think it’s a good idea to get away from unsecured public wifi connections:

  • With public wifi. you can’t be sure that the innocent-looking person on the next table to you isn’t stealing every bit and byte that’s passing between you and the internet.
  • With public wifi, you can’t be certain that the provider isn’t stealing information about you as well. A few weeks ago I connected to Costa Coffee’s wifi for some reason and was really hacked off when a message came up saying their terms and conditions have changed and that I now have to tell them my gender! No way. If they are giving me free wifi then it’s not free if they are gathering (and selling?) information about me and my use of their service. Having a distinctly childish and petulant streak in me, I told them I am female.

So, if you have several mobile devices and want more-or-less permanent access to a secure wifi connection, then mobile wifi is versatile in that it allows any device capable of a wifi connection to connect to it, and it also lets you get away from the security-challenged environment of public wifi.

But, oh yes, it’s one more thing to forget to put in your bag when you go out, and one more thing to forget to charge.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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