The Web Cube: Squaring up for a landline broadband fight

The Web Cube lit up

The Web Cube from Three is a bit of an odd idea to think about at first. It is a bit like the MiFi, a device used to get access to the Internet through the mobile phone network. Where it differs from the mobile, and most products offered by mobile phone companies is that it is not mobile. This is a device that needs to be plugged into the mains. However many homes have non mobile routers plugged into the mains to set them up with web access. The Web Cube is intended to be a replacement for that device, ending the need for ADSL and the fixed telephone line that always comes with it that many do not use anymore. The Web Cube is only available in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Leeds at the moment, but I've been taking one for a test drive in Milton Keynes.

It a curious looking device. As the name suggests it is a cube, one that lights up and emits a blue glow. There is no display to tell you information about what is going on with the device as you now find with the MiFi instead the blue light can flash to convey information and an illumination on the top of the device tells you the signal strength. On the bottom of the device is a sticker with the WiFi hotspot name and the access code. The idea here is that you can buy the device in a shop, take it home, plonk it somewhere, plug it in and connect to it. If you move house just take it with you and plug it in there. According to Three the device is aimed at people who rent their property and students and the three launch cities were picked as mobile broadband has been particularly popular there. This concept, coupled with an option for a rolling one month contract could be an attractive alternative to the typically eighteen month long contracts found with many ADSL and landline services. Plus you aren't kept hanging around for the service to be activated.

Using this option for your broadband works out a little bit more expensive than a traditional ADSL option, although if you have no need for a land line the lack of a line rental charge on top of the broadband charge could make this an attractive option. Currently there are two options, £15/month plus a one off charge of £59.99 for a rolling one month contract giving you 10GB of data per month or £15.99/month on a twenty-four month contract which provides 15GB of data. This works out quite reasonably against BT who offer 10GB of data for £16/month (plus line rental from £10.75, but the first few months of broadband may be free) but maybe not so well against the likes of Talk Talk who offer 40GB of data for £6.50 (plus line rental from £9.50, again special offers may be available). As watching video and television on the Internet becomes more popular I think this data allowance may prove to be too small, it would be great to see much more generous data limits in the future.

Interestingly I stumbled across a post by one of the designers of the Web Cube who said that the aim was to build a very simple device to enable people to get connected to the Internet quickly. As a drop in replacement for your home router it performs pretty well. Where I live I found it was faster than my ADSL line! No doubt this is helped by the inclusion of the latest HSPA+ technology . Connecting to the device is straightforward and, like the MiFi, you can access a web page on the device that lets you configure it and see how much data is being used. You can even turn the blue light on and off!

Sadly, the Web Cube suffers from the same issue that is seen on many routers and was seen on the original MiFi - the flashing light problem. For example if the light is flashing quickly the router is telling you something different about its status than if the light is flashing slowly, then you have to look to see if the signal strength indicator is lit up, only you might not have realised that it has a signal strength indicator as this is not immediately obvious. Of course working out if an LED is flashing slowly or quickly is something that takes some thought, and the sensible option would be to log on to the router's status page to find out what is up if you can. This could all confuse a user who may end up with no idea what the Cube is trying to tell them. The lack of a display might make it appear that the device is simple to use for its target market, but actually could end up making things more complicated.

The Web Cube is a really interesting move by Three. If it had been available back when I was living in shared houses I might have been tempted to buy one as it makes the whole process of getting on the Internet a lot more straightforward than ADSL or cable broadband - no shared bills, no need to ask the landlord if it is ok to have a phone line installed and so on. However if you already have a phone line installed in your house it may not be so tempting as the data limits are a little on the low side and it could work out more expensive than some options. It will be interesting to see if Three offer a pay as you go option as well. It works out as being a bit cheaper than the MiFi so if you are just interested in getting Internet access for your home this could be an interesting alternative to the traditional options.

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