Broadband laptop dongles are here

Reliance and Tata, launch  USB wireless dongles for broadband  Net access on the move

Finally, Indian  portable computer users have the ability to surf the Internet while on the move, at something touching broadband speeds.  Within weeks of each other, two  leading mobile service providers have launched wireless Internet  USB dongles for laptops ( they can also be used with desktop PCs of course)  which promise  download speeds that are at least 10 to 20 times faster than the best one could achieve till now, with wireless data cards from these same companies.

We  were offered broadband dongles  to try out by  the  early  movers:  Reliance Communications Net Connect Broadband Plus  and Tata Indicom's  Photon +.  Tata also offers a wireless router  for home/ office  multi PC use; but we chose to concentrate on the  laptop options from both players.


The hardware is almost identical;  while both Reliance and Tatas advertise  the sleeker model which looks like a pen drive ( as illustrated above), both chose to send the slightly larger and identical device from ZTE, China,  which has a provision to take a mobile phone SIM card and work off it if required.  You don't need to do this if you subscribe to the wireless Internet plans of either company in India.  Incidentally if you  have multiple USB slots on your laptops, next to each other, opt for the sleeker non ZTE model; otherwise the device will block access to the adjacent USB port. 

Reliance has embedded the access software in the device; the Tata photon comes with a CD which you have to install on your laptop. After that the experience is identical.  The software will work  in a plug-n-play way with  almost all contemporary laptops running a Windows flavour

Tata is offering the service in selected cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai, Jaipur, J&K   and the North East.  Reliance has a larger list of towns covering the south and west quite comprehensively, with a few places in  North and Kolkata, but their footpirnt stops short of the NE and J&K. 

Both promise speeds "up to 3.1 MBPS"   but we have learnt from past experience that top speeds are almost never achievable  in practice  ( upload speeds in any case will be about half the top  rating)  and if you  accept that typical speeds will be a tenth of the peak claimed, you will be in for less of a disappointment and will even be pleasantly surprised when the speed occasionally touched 1 MBPS.  Such at any rate, was  our experience  with both models. 

The whole matter of guaranteed speeds for  Internet access is shrouded in  technical  uncertainties often beyond the providers' control and some techno-commercial  fine print that effectively absolves them in the event you  challenge them on why your average experience is so far below  the promised peaks of performance. We have no solace to offer on this front except to say,  that both these dongles provided a far superior experience compared to the wireless data cards that one has been using in India where the speed of access is often so slow that even a dial-up 56 KBPS will seem  faster  in comparison. 


Tariff wise, the broadband services are costlier  than the old  data cards -- but not all that much. There are a variety of options  starting with a monthly rental for Tata Photon of Rs 500  for half a GB of usage  and Rs 2 extra per MB thereafter.  Reliance's  entry scheme is Rs 299  with nil bundling and  Rs 2 per every MB of  usage.  Their Rs 499  per month scheme includes  10 GB bundled for night use and 50 paise per MB for day time.  Both have plans going up to  Rs 750 / Rs 850 p.m.    Tata also offers a plan where you pay by  time ( Rs 1 per minute) rather than by download size.    Both dongles cost Rs 3500  each, on initial purchase. 

Prospective buyers  can check out the full details and the operational areas of both the wireless dongles  at their respective websites:

Unlike the wireless data cards  offered by almost all the mobile operators, these broadband services  are not ' all India' yet and your decision to upgrade or go in for a new connection will depend on where you expect to roam.   Nationwide  services are obviously what these will eventually become -- but  let's face it,  that is not going to happen tomorrow.   Ofcourse  these broadband dongles are ' downward compatible' that  means, in places where the  3 MBPS network is not available you will still be able to connect to the  slower, older networks.

That said, these zippy dongles are yet another step down the road to  universal   Net connectivity ... and  for footloose Indians, an early   taste  of the high speed  Internet  that the world will eventually come to expect  as the birthright of every human. So let's say Jai Ho to that.

- Anand Parthasarathy in Bangalore, May 18 2009