Comparing Canadian mobile Internet offerings

This week I finally bit the bullet and purchased a high-speed internet connection in USB form so I can work outdoors with my laptop this summer. I have done much research and had many questions along the way so this article hopes to resolve some of those frequent and common questions.

Does it work on Linux?

Yes. It does. All of the "Internet Sticks" or "USB Internet keys" currently sold in Canada support Linux.

In Debian 6 the device will be detected within about a minute and will then appear in your Network Manager menu. Don't click the connection yet - you have to configure a couple things first. You should open your network connections, click the tab where your "modem" should be and select "add provider". This will ask you what country and provider you are using. Do that! It has the 'dialup' info for your carrier ready to go for you.

The other thing it will need to know is a PIN number if you are on Telus. I put that in the PIN field and the password field. I put my wireless number into the username fields as some forums recommended. Apparently does not like that field to be blank.

What is the coverage like? Which network?

All of the Canadian offerings are currently on the same network technology, HSPA+, which is a variant of GSM. Those familiar with wireless will recognize that Bell and Telus are jumping over to the GSM side of the spectrum. Because of this, I considered all operators equally.

Telus and Bell have roaming agreements with the prairie telecoms and I plan to do some traveling though that region regularly... so they win in this case. I have Rogers network access already with my cellphone but they only really have coverage in Manitoba and some parts of Alberta.

For those new to this, Rogers runs it's own network, while Telus and Bell roam with each other's networks. They all use the same technology, but there are effectively two big networks in Canada.

Fortunately, I checked in on Sasktel's LTE/HSPA+ rollout and the places I'm traveling to are already running on the "new" network Telus/Bell/Sasktel network. So from now on I should always have a connection while I'm in the country, having the new Internet stick and my existing Rogers phone to rely on.

What is the pricing like? How much data?

Even though I am a web developer I use very little amounts data each month. Seriously. My work is all done on the server, so I connect to that and all the dirty work is done there. No uploading/downloading/uploading process in my world. I also do not watch a lot of video or listen to music online.

Having monitored my laptop bandwidth for a few months I can say I use about 5gb of data on wifi, where I assume no limitations, and about 0.5gb on my wireless account if I use it a lot (full time for 10 days will do it). I plan on using about 3x more data on the new wireless connection than my old one, so 1.5gb should be about right.

All of the network operators in Canada basically offer the same plan. Due to the potential for going wildly over budget I recommend the "flexi" plan (it is roughly $5 more but automatically adjusts to the next level if you go over).

Again, all major operators have this on offer:

$35 starter rate (500mb or so)
$55-60 midrange (up to 2gb on most or 3gb on Bell)
$70ish high/fulltime (5gb)

Anything over that will cost you about $50/gig and in my case Telus is going to stop the card from functioning at the 10gb mark. Probably a good idea since that would mean an extra $250 on top of my monthly bill.

Which Card is Best?

Telus offers two cards, Bell one, and Rogers two.

The best one on Telus is the Sierra series, so sayeth the forums. Construction of the card is better?

The best one on Rogers is the MTE variety. It seems to get higher speeds.

The best one on Bell is... well who cares about Bell.

I ended up with the lower option of the two Sierra cards Telus had on offer, the Sierra 306. I chose this one for a few reasons:

  • It only required a 1 year contract
  • It supported the same network(s) as the higher end model
  • The difference between high speed and ultra high speed is irrelevant (it is just reason to use more data)
  • The pricing for the higher end model is dumber than dumb. The outright cost is $29 more than the lower one, but you pay $79 up front on contract vs. $0... why so much more? Dumb.
  • Currently the bulk of users on the Telus/Bell network are using the older network technology, so there should be no harm in choosing a mid-range card on the new network... the network has few users thus lots of bandwidth.
    • Final Thoughts / Observations

      The stick is much faster than I expected. It is amazing to use.

      As I had been warned by some friends who have used these things, the USB sticks get hot really fast. It is okay though. They are tested to run that hot.

      On a busy day my bandwidth usage is about 65-70mb. Primarily using SSH to connect to servers and a lot of page reloads while I'm developing.