An Inexpensive Mobile Broadband Alternative When Traveling in the UK

The Huawei E585 on the Three network in the UK is an excellent deal for travelers

Traveling overseas is challenging in many ways, but mobile phone and data service is especially difficult. While it’s fairly easy to find a reasonable deal locally, it’s almost impossible to transfer these deals abroad. The best way to avoid a huge ripoff is to use a local provider, and this is exactly what I did during my recent trip to the UK. I picked up a Huawei E585 “MiFi” on the Three network for half what AT&T charged me for modest use on my last trip.

Introducing the Huawei E585

The E585 is the latest “MiFi” device from Three in the UK. Like the familiar Novatel MiFi devices in the USA, the Huawei includes a 3G modem, Wi-Fi access point, and runs for hours on an internal battery.

Note: MiFi is a trademark of Novatel in the USA, but Three registered the “MiFi” trademark in the UK years before Novatel, so they are able to use the term for their 3G Wi-Fi service there, regardless of hardware maker.

Unlike my Novatel 2200, Huawei includes an OLED display on the E585, which clearly shows relevant information including battery charge and 3G and Wi-Fi connection status. The device is controlled with a single button and includes a Micro SD slot for local data sharing.

I found the battery to last at least four hours of casual use, which is nice since it takes quite a while to power on and off. But at least it isn’t eager to power itself on without my input – I often find my Novatel on and running down the battery for no reason!

The default WPA password is unique and printed on the inside of the device. Like Novatel’s “admin”, Huawei set the administrative password to “Admin”, leaving something to be desired. I quickly changed the SSID, and WPA and administrative passwords.

The Three network was widespread and speedy in my travels through the south of England. I was pleased by their £71.99 offering, which included the modem and 3 GB of data good for 3 months. I walked into one of their High Street stores and walked out with Internet access in less than 15 minutes.

Traveling Outside the UK

The E585 supports five GSM bands: 850, 900, 1800, 1900, and 2100 MHz. It is possible to unlock the E585 using free tools, as noted below, and this makes it potentially useful in many European and Asian countries.

But high-speed 3G HSPA is limited to 900 and 2100 MHz, and AT&T uses 950/1900 for 3G HSPA in the USA. It definitely does not support the 1700 MHz band required by T-Mobile USA’s 1700/2100 MHz 3G network, either, so it won’t be useful there. The same problem crops up in Canada, where most providers use 1900 MHz for 3G HSPA.

Providers that offer 2100 MHz HSPA service (see also list of UMTS networks):

  • Africa  – Most GSM providers
  • Asia – Most GSM providers
  • Australia/New Zealand – Telstra, Optus, Vodafone AU & NZ, Three Mobile AU, 2° and Telecom NZ
  • Brazil – All five GSM providers
  • Europe – Most GSM providers
  • Israel – Cellcom, Orange, Pelephone
  • Japan – NTT DoCoMo, SoftBank Mobile
  • Middle East – Most GSM providers
  • Thailand – TOT

On returning to the USA, I followed steps I found online to unlock the E585. When an invalid SIM is inserted, the device’s unlock code becomes visible in its EFS memory, which can be dumped by a utility called PSAS. My modem hid the code later in memory than earlier revisions, but I was able to locate and use it.

I tested the E585 on the AT&T network using the SIM from an iPhone. It worked fine after unlocking, but was limited to 2.5 G “EDGE” performance. This limits its attractiveness to US buyers somewhat, though it’s still useful in many other countries.

Stephen’s Stance

I would not hesitate to recommend the Huawei E585 for use in the UK, especially with Three’s generous prepaid data offer. Since it can be unlocked for use in other European countries, it becomes all that much more useful. But it is disappointing it’s not more useful in the USA!

Update, November 2011

In November, I traveled to Germany and the Netherlands with my E585 MiFi. I’m happy report that it works just fine with GSM networks in both countries. As reported in my follow-up post, Wireless Internet Access During My Trip To The Netherlands, issues that I experienced were due to the idiosyncrasies of local billing, not the device or the unlock detailed above.

I would recommend looking up the APN and username/password combination of whatever provider you intend to use before purchasing a SIM card. On the E585, you can set up a new network configuration and preset the device for the local APN. That way, the device will work as soon as you insert the SIM. Just don’t forget to set the network configuration correctly when traveling to the next country.

Update, January 2012

As I prepare to return to the UK this month for Dell Storage Forum, I’ve been working through the process necessary to reactivate my Three MiFi device. It seems that Three does not allow non-UK post codes to be used for accounts or credit cards. Perhaps this is some sort of security measure, but it makes it difficult for travelers like me to top up their account.

Probably the best method is to have a friend in the UK by some top up credit at a petrol station or small shop and send you the top up code. You may then enter this online to reactivate your device before entering the UK. I had a friend purchase top up credit on my behalf, so my account should be ready to go as soon as I touched down at Heathrow.

If you don’t have a local to help you out, it is possible to buy a top up code with a foreign credit card at many shops and petrol stations in the UK. Once you have the code, you’ll need to get online somehow (public Wi-Fi?) and enter it into your 3 account.

Accessing your Three account online requires you to have registered with them. They use an SMS to send you your password, so it’s best to do this in the UK before your allowance runs out. But I found that the device would happily receive their password even with an un-funded SIM in the USA! I requested my password, turned on the MiFi with the Three SIM in it, and the SMS came through about half an hour later. I was then able to activate my account, though I couldn’t enter my information (address, credit card) since I don’t have a UK post code. Everything still worked fine, though.

Also, Three no longer sells the Huawei E585 device I purchased. The replacement E586 looks identical, but probably has somewhat different specs. Hopefully, the new device supports American GSM bands and is just as easy to unlock. But I’m really not sure if this is the case, so your mileage may vary. Regardless, I’m still happy with my Huawei E585 and the Three service in the UK.

  • Plushzilla

    Hey, the design it really cool and unique. I hope they will expand their broadband network in other regions too. Would help many I guess. :)

  • soko

    I have successfully been using this device in Israel for a the last year or so with cellcom. I used it with a sim  provided by cellcom for a home router (globesurfer). Anyway, the other day I popped the sim into the E585 and after a long time ‘searching’ it went into ‘no network’. I tried resetting it and reconfiguring to no avail. I should mention that the sim still works in the globesurfer. I spoke with cellcom and they claim they have changed nothing. Any idea how to resolve this? By the way when I get in the web-interface and manually search for networks the E585 does recognise the available networks.

  • Alex

    Is this E585 better for you than your Cradlepoint PHS3000?