Customer satisfaction for broadband dongles seems to hover around a similar level as for London's congestion charge, or prison food. Despite the networks making substantial promises of wide coverage and vigorous speeds, the most glowing compliment I've ever heard anyone pay theirs is "well, I suppose it kind of does the job."
A Sunday afternoon spent coaxing a friend's pay-as-you-go T-Mobile dongle to stay connected long enough to download a hefty email attachment coincided with the arrival of a note from reader Nicola Checkley, complaining vociferously about Vodafone's inability to give her a reliable connection 10 miles beyond Birmingham. A cursory blog scan reveals untold gripes of this kind, with Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel fame making a typical observation: "These dongles – they don't work, do they." It almost seems unfair to single out any particular company for criticism, but it's equally hard to heap praise on one, either; 3 may have just won "Best Mobile Broadband Package" at the Mobile Choice Consumer Awards, but that's like getting a prize for performing the most enjoyable tooth extraction.
Surveys tend to encourage griping, so it's perhaps unsurprising that ThinkBroadband.com found that 76 per cent of respondents to their recent mobile broadband survey were unhappy with the speeds they were getting. More telling is a report produced by Broadband Expert last month, which demonstrated that the networks are indeed delivering only 24 per cent of their advertised rate – turning something as simple as watching a YouTube clip into a mammoth test of human endurance.
Marketing is undoubtedly part of the problem. The networks are technically allowed to use the word "broadband", but it raises our expectations to such an extent that I almost wonder why they don't call these dongles "intermittent data pipettes" in order to stave off some of the criticism. One thing's clear: we've had enough. Transient customers moving from address to address are becoming increasingly seduced by short-term three-month contracts offered by the likes of Be Broadband, while the increasing sophistication and capability of smartphones is reducing the need for business travellers to get online with their laptops or netbooks at all.
When these kind of accusations are levelled at mobile broadband services, the networks' response is generally along the lines of: "Mobile broadband was never intended as a replacement for fixed lines." To which many of us would say: "Then a) why not make that abundantly clear when people are signing up, and b) why tie them in to 12-month contracts for a service that's as errant and unpredictable as a slightly depressed teenage boy?"
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