Vodafone may have first-mover advantage in third-generation communications but Orange, which launched its first 3G product last month, claims far greater coverage at 66 per cent of the UK population. It has pitched its charges slightly below Vodafone's, as well as offering an unlimited-use deal for £75 a month.
Like Vodafone's and T-Mobile's, Orange's initial 3G product is a data card to fit in a laptop computer. It will also work on GPRS ("2.5G") networks. In theory, this should give almost universal access to the internet and to email, at speeds of up to 384 kilobytes per second in 3G coverage areas. Where the card runs on GPRS, speeds will be around 40kbps - a little slower than a dial-up modem.
Our tests, though, were hampered by dropped calls and calls that appeared to hook up to Orange but failed to deliver access to any internet services, even in areas where Orange claims 3G coverage. And the reliability of the service varied from day to day during our tests.
We asked about this at a couple of Orange retail outlets (the staff are helpful and well-informed about 3G). Apparently, early 3G cards have suffered from frequently dropping calls. The Tools of the Trade base camp, in deepest south-west London, is also in an Orange 3G coverage blackspot, at least for now.
But we also experienced problems in other areas, including London's West End, although the Orange card does seem to be better at finding a 3G network than the Vodafone equivalent. But the latter is probably the more reliable from a technical point of view.
The lesson here is that 3G still has a long way to go before business users can depend on it. However good an area might be for phone calls (or even WAP data services) on a particular network, 3G is, in effect, starting from scratch. There are no guarantees.
And the vagaries of switching between 2.5 and 3G coverage push some of the hardware further than it is ready to go: similar problems to those we experienced with the Orange Mobile Office Card have plagued users on 3's phone-based services, as well as those with Vodafone cards.
If universal coverage is important, a 2.5G data card (still available from Orange) might be the answer until the network sorts out the problems with its 3G equipment. If you need speed, a wireless LAN subscription is still the way to go for now.
Orange has to be applauded for its aggressive pricing and, in particular, for its knowledgeable and honest retail staff: we were steered towards a 2.5G smartphone as a more sensible choice for our next upgrade.
If you live and travel to areas with decent 3G coverage, Orange has a good pricing structure. But for now, it is hard to recommend the card unless you try before you buy. Orange has a 14-day money-back guarantee.
Orange Mobile Office Card
Rating: 3 out of 5 (based on current coverage).
Pros: sensible pricing, decent control software.
Cons: network holes and 2G/3G handover problems.
Price: from £85 to £170; subscription from £10 to £75 a month.
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