Portable Internet with the Vodem

I’m currently staying in a small flat in the Mt Cook area of Wellington. The place has no internet connection so a friend kindly lent me his Vodem (aka the Huawei E220).

The Vodem

This is a cute little USB modem that plugs into your computer and connects you to the internet via Vodafone’s 3G network (supports GPRS/UMTS/HSDPA). It’s quite stylee in curvy white and has a fully Hardware 2.0 blue LED light on it.

One of the cool things about the Vodem is that it not only installs itself as a communications device, it also includes a built in flash-drive that contains the software and drivers you need to make it all work. This means there’s no need for a separate CD. Also, when you update the modem firmware you’re also updating the built in software. Nifty.

The Network

The idea was that I would plug the Vodem into my laptop and then share the internet connection over our internal wifi network so that Kim could also use it. Finally we’d plug the NAS storage device into the wifi access point and our little internal network would be all set up with both of us able to get onto the internet. Even better, we’d be able to do this wherever we went as long as we had power and a Vodafone signal, so it would be a perfect way to keep connected during our planned South Island touring/camping trip.

While none of this was incredibly complex I was a bit wary at first – Vista’s built-in networking does some odd things at times, partly because it’s trying too hard to help. I see what they’re trying to do with it (easier to setup and good default security settings) and I think it’s a good idea in principle but they haven’t got it right yet. I look forward to the whispered-about SP1.

However, in this case I was pleased to see that it was all very easy. Install the Vodem, share the connection, plug in the AP, plug in the NAS box, tell Kim’s laptop to connect through mine – and everything worked. Yay, we had ‘net! And then the connection dropped. And came back. And dropped. And then it wouldn’t come back at all, with the software reporting some nonsensical error message about an incorrect broadcast address.

The Problems

The first problem was the Vodafone supplied software. For some reason that I completely fail to understand, it appears that telephone companies and manufacturers of telephone equipment are incapable of writing good PC software. Fixing this wasn’t too hard – discard the software and set up the connection within Windows as a normal PPP connection using the Vodem. Problem #1 solved.

Sadly there was a problem #2 as well. While the PCs and internal parts of the network were happy, there was still a problem with the Vodem and Vodafone’s network. They support three of the multiple data standards used for mobile data (GPRS at up to 60kbit/sec, UMTS at up to 384kbit/sec, and HSDPA at up to 3600kbit/sec) and in theory the Vodem will seamlessly switch between them depending on what network is available. And it’s that word “seamlessly” that’s the problem.

The Vodem would rather spend time endlessly hunting between GPRS/UTMS/HSDPA, flicking its little indicator LED from blue to greeny-blue and back again, then actually moving data back and forth. Each time it switches there is an interruption in your internet connection that lasts 10-30 seconds, and there’s no guarantee that when the connection is re-established that it won’t immediately switch back again.

The Verdict

In practice this means that you have a tremendously annoying and frustrating internet connection. You’re happily surfing/chatting away and then suddenly it stops. You glance over at the vodem, see the light flickering, sigh, and wait for it to re-establish itself. It does so and you get the next page and …wham, it stops again. It’s frustrating to press submit on a web form, see the LED change colour, and know that there’s definitely going to be a service interruption and there’s only about a 50% chance that whatever you submitted will actually get there.

It’s got to the point now that I’m looking for the commands I need to disable some of the connection types in the hope that it will be more stable (because it’s treated like a modem it uses a very extended version of the AT command set). GPRS may be slow but I’d rather have a stable slow connection than an intermittent fast one. Sadly the documentation isn’t very good and the Huawei website doesn’t let commoners like me download the manuals. Time to go googling, I’ll post an update when I find the solution.

Verdict: The Vodem is a neat idea and I really want it to work but I can’t recommend it at this time.