Note: This article is under development. More info and screenshots will be added later. Keep checking back!
I decided to buy a mobile broadband USB modem yesterday. For those of you who don’t know, I work as a wireless network & VPN specialist for the University of Bristol. At the time of writing, there are 507 access points around campus, giving pretty good coverage. However I often have to visit locations with dead wireless to fix it – and it’s times like these that mobile broadband would come in really handy.
After a bit of market research, I found that Three was the cheapest network; however their standard issue USB modem is made by ZTE and some Googling shows that this isn’t well supported by Linux. That’s a showstopper for me. However, O2 offer Huawei modems which, according to the Internet, work out of the box with recent versions of NetworkManager, which is included with distros such as Fedora and Ubuntu.
After a quick word with an O2 sales adviser, I was told that Windows and OS X are supported, and Linux is not only unsupported, but “won’t work”. Of course, I took this with a pinch of salt. I prefer to believe articles on FedoraForum, for example.
I run a number of operating systems on my various computers. It’s not essential to have it working on all of them, but it would be nice. Here’s what I’ve got:
- Home desktop PC: Dual boot Fedora 11 with Windows Vista for occasional gaming or audio work
- Main laptop: EeePC 901 with Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.04
- Secondary laptop: HP nx7400 dual boot Fedora 11 with Windows XP for occasional stuff (such as using my slide scanner)
- Work PC: Fedora 10
- Work laptop: Macbook with OS X 10.5 Leopard
So how did O2 Mobile Broadband really fare on these various systems?
Ubuntu Netbook Remix
First I tried it with the computer I am likely to use most on the move – my trusty EeePC. I connected the modem and was immediately greeted with a screen saying it had detected a USB modem.
I was asked to pick a network provider from a short list.
Setup was complete!
I now connect by using the NetworkManager list, the same way as for regular wireless networks. However, even if I connect to O2 Mobile Broadband, it still uses wireless networks in preference if possible. Very sensible!
Fedora runs a very similar version of NetworkManager to Ubuntu. The main difference is that you don’t get a magic wizard to put the settings in for you. But don’t worry, it’s quite simple.
- Right click the NetworkManager icon, click Edit Connections
- Under the Mobile Broadband tab, click Add
- Do the same on your Ubuntu PC, except click Edit.
- Copy the settings over (or look them up from O2).
Getting it to work on Windows was easy, although I was not impressed by the software. When you plug in the USB modem, it automatically mounts as a virtual CD-ROM which then autoruns the installer. It’s all themed in the O2 colours and looks smart, even if horrible and blue. Installing it is a simple case of clicking Next repeatedly.
But what I didn’t like was the way that the software automatically takes control of your wired and wireless connections too, without consent.
In its defence, it does work and it does do the job. It even has nice features, such as being able to prioritise various connections or networks. You can say you want the wired to always take precedence, followed by your home wireless network, then the 3G network, and finally your neighbour’s wireless.
However, the application is ugly, blue and blobby. It looks like a UFO. It installed yet another tray icon I don’t want, and it’s changed the way I connect to wireless networks. Of course I’m capable of adapting to the change, but I liked the way I connected to networks before. Why force me to change?
One thing I haven’t tested yet is its ability to connect to WPA2-Enterprise (802.1x) networks, which I use daily as part of my job. This is where lots of other third-party wireless applications fall down.
Tonight I will look into ways to remove the app but keep the driver – and perhaps have the 3G connection available to me as an on-demand connection, the same way that Windows handles VPN connections.
Overall, I’m glad I will almost never be using this laptop with my 3G connection.
Mac OS X Leopard
Despite Apple Macs having a reputation for being intuitive and easy to use, installing the USB modem was a nightmare and I still haven’t got it to work.
While Windows and OS X are the two officially supported platforms, the OS X software is just the default Huawei software without any O2 theming at all. O2 haven’t even bothered to bap in the config in advance. Plugging in the USB modem causes a directory to be mounted, containing an installer and a PDF document. The PDF briefly explains how to install the application and fill in the settings. It has a series of screenshots and simple instructions, although still daunting enough compared with the ease by which most Mac applications are installed.
The software itself is ugly and a bit clunky. It doesn’t have anything sensible like a “tray” icon. You have to load the application manually before you want to use the connection. If you frequently use the software, it would be best to make a dock icon, which you also have to do manually.
Worst of all, it doesn’t actually work (for me). I followed the guide exactly and yet when I came to connect, it always fails with a useless error message of “Connection failure!”.