Someone close to me is going into hospital for an operation soon. They want to take their Mac with them for web and email access while recuperating. And it turns out that the institution concerned only has a paid WiFi hotspot service, at the typical extortionate rates, with the usual clunky credit-card sign up. It's also unclear whether the WiFi has ubiquitous coverage in the building.
Solution - as an alternative/substitute, I got them a 3G dongle as a gift. Obviously that's also a little hostage to coverage issues, but I'm finding central London not too bad unless I'm in a basement. Also, it's not necessary to have multi-MB speeds for HD video, or huge file download limits, in this case.
Given their expected stay in hospital, their existing 20MB ADSL + 802.11n WiFi coverage, and relatively infrequent normal out-of-home PC use (and iPhone ownership), there was no point in getting an 18 / 24 month ongoing contract. A packaged, boxed, prepaid dongle was ideal.
I saw that Vodafone announced a standalone prepaid dongle a week or so back, for £39 including an inclusive 1GB data allowance. You can buy more at £15 per GB through normal prepay channels. This seemed pretty good. Unfortunately, and despite what the first Voda store I visited told me, it doesn't currently support Apple Macs. Luckily, that one was out of stock anyway, and the second one on London's Oxford Street had some more clued-up staff who gave me accurate information.
Being two days before Xmas, with hordes of shoppers in London, I wasn't exactly getting personal service at some of the other stores. My patience ran thin in O2 and T-Mobile and Orange stores. But anyway, none seemed to have nice, convenient prepaid "in a box" dongles that didn't need contracts or other hard work to sign up, at least based on the display info and brochures. I was a bit surprised, as I'd though that T-Mo had a similar offer, but I couldn't find it.
So, my last port of call was 3 UK. They've been heavily advertising the dongle-as-Xmas-present offer all over London, so I was pretty confident they'd have what I needed. And yes, they have three pre-packaged options, based on Huawei E160 modem sticks (HSDPA 3.6 only, but that's good enough). They offer 1GB, 3GB and 12GB prepaid boxed bundles, with the data "credit" lasting 1/3/12 months respectively. Apple support was indicated on the outside of the box.
I was in store for about 10-15 minutes, was dealt with by two busy-but-pleasant staffers, who helpfully pointed out that the midrange 3GB bundle was, in fact, discounted to just £50 instead of the indicated £70. (Compared to £30 or £100 for the 1GB or 12GB offers). They also offered me the option of black or white dongles - obviously white to go with the MacBook.
I paid £50 (ie €52 / $74) for the modem and 3GB / 3 months of access. At that rate, it's essentially disposable. Whether 3 is making any profit on it, if most of the 3GB gets used up, but the account doesn't get topped up afterwards, is another question entirely.
As a side-note - given that some London hotels still charge £10 or even £20 for a day's WiFi, anyone coming to London for a week or more would be insane not to use the same approach.