Wi-Fi vs. prepaid 3G data dongles

There are some attractive emerging options for getting international mobile voice services with predictable, flat-fee pricing models, as discussed last week. Now, what about taming data usage fees?

Granted, getting affordable and price-predictable global wireless services might not be a huge issue for Joe Consumer, who either doesn’t leave the country (and thus can get a flat-rate unlimited domestic data service) or has limited communications requirements when abroad. Paying occasional daily Wi-Fi hot spot fees for data, for example, might be palatable to Joe. Or, if he’s a frequent traveler, subscribing to a hot spot service for a monthly fee of about $10 might do the trick.

But international enterprises with populations of high-end smartphone users are seeing user expectations soar because of devices such as the Apple iPhone 3G. Users – often, corporate muckety-mucks – want to take advantage of all the phones’ fancy multimedia features. Consequently, cellular bills for voice, texting and data/Internet usage are unpredictable and often shocking as per-megabyte charges pile up unobtrusively in the background when users are out of earshot of a hot spot.

The pricing models have only recently started catching up to the technology.

as the in-country subscriber identity module (SIM) cards for voice have grown popular for unlocked GSM phones, a similar trend appears to be happening with 3G data USB dongles. In Europe, prepaid 3G data dongles can be easily procured for less than the $6.95 to $19.95 per day it costs to connect to a Wi-Fi hot spot on an ad-hoc basis.

The prepaid mobile broadband dongles – portable 3G modems that plug into the USB port of your mobile device and connect it to the Internet via 3G signaling – are available from carriers such as 3 Broadband, Vodafone UK, Orange and T-Mobile. They are one way to control international data usage spending.

Like the voice SIM cards before them, however, they appear to be tied to usage within a given country. So users traversing multiple countries might end up with a “bag of dongles” the way some have carried around multiple SIM cards for getting local voice rates across country borders.

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