Ask Adrian: Our tech editor tackles your trickiest technology problems
Q I have a question about broadband. I am a pensioner and use the internet on and off, mainly for checking my emails, Googling a little, doing a bit of shopping on eBay and watching Netflix for an hour or two (via a box attached to my telly).
My supplier is Virgin and they charge €62 a month for broadband and telephone services only. I recently saw that the mobile provider Three offers an unlimited data sim card for €20 per month. Would I be better off to get this and use a spare Android phone, which I have, to set up a Wi-Fi hotspot which I could then use at far less cost than what I am getting from Virgin?
- L Hartnett
A If you're in an area with strong 4G coverage, the answer is yes. I say this based on your usage patterns. But if you were to change those patterns - say you watched a little more Netflix or had others over to the house who used your broadband - it might not be the right fit.
The Three data offer isn't unlimited, it's 60GB per month (which the company describes as "all you can eat"). This is easily the best data capacity offer in the market (even if Three isn't the fastest 4G broadband service in the market). Even so, 60GB is just one quarter of the average amount of data used by a typical Virgin Media broadband household (according to figures supplied by Virgin). Again, based on the usage patterns you describe above, you may not exceed that limit: Netflix will use the lion's share of whatever data you consume. (It should be pointed out that Three also has a separate offer for €30 per month that gives you 750GB of data per month, which is more than enough for whatever usage you need.) There is another challenge with 4G as a default home service. In general, mobile phone signals are weaker indoors than outdoors. This is especially true in houses with thick walls. What's more, a phone's 'hotspot' feature is usually no match for a typical home Wi-Fi router when it comes to covering a couple of rooms in your house. For instance, suppose you find that the strongest 4G signal is your front window and you place the phone there, permanently on 'hotspot' mode. You should get a decent service when you're using your internet devices in that room. But it could be much weaker in the kitchen or a bedroom. That's because phone hotspots are designed to be immediate-proximity forms of internet access, not a way to cover a whole house.
But even if you live in a small apartment or two-room cottage, there's still another factor to consider: speed. Three's 4G speeds can be excellent, often exceeding 30Mbs. But it's also normal for them to register at around 10Mbs. That's fine for email and light browsing and should also be enough to watch Netflix at present. But it's not a future-proof broadband speed by any measure. (For context, the Government's designation of acceptable home broadband is now a minimum of 30Mbs and preferably over 100Mbs.)
Even if all of these potential challenges are met, there is one last consideration: Three's terms. While the company is not known for cracking down, it still harbours an official policy of not 'allowing' such prepay phone tariffs to act as default hotspot services. Make of that what you will. (The same doesn't apply to Three's €30 per month service, as this is designed to be used as a default internet product.) Lastly, by giving up Virgin, you also give up the telephone service you have with it. Only you will know if you wish to retain a landline or not.
In short, you will definitely save money by switching to Three. But depending on the coverage area you live in and what rooms you use your internet in, you might give up a lot of speed and functionality.
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