There's no denying the appeal of broadband internet access and yet for a smart country Australia has been falling way behind our international counterparts. Unfortunately our geography is against us - the dense population needed to impel the mighty yet sluggish Telstra to actually make broadband available to potential customers just hasn't been there, let alone making reliable dial-up available. (Hello to our regional readers. We feel your pain!).
The old business adage is that you have to spend money to make money, yet it's painfully obvious that Telstra won't do that unless it can make the money back immediately. So for many the crawl toward broadband availability in their area has been reliant on the carrier's snail-paced ADSL and cable roll-outs. Fortunately the pace has picked up in recent years - broadband is big business, and the numbers of ISPs are astonishing. If you're in Australia's metro areas the chances are that you've got a surfeit of broadband options available to you.
The problem with broadband though is that there's not much leeway or flexibility if you want to move the connection from room to room, or even house to house. You could get yourself a wireless modem or router, but if you're moving house you've usually got to stump up for relocation fees.
What would be ideal is if the broadband connection were portable.
This is where Personal Broadband's iBurst and Unwired's, uh, Unwired services are making names for themselves. Each offers high-speed internet access over a wireless connection at speeds comparable to wired broadband. Both systems use their own base stations - much like mobile phone carriers do - which means they're not really beholden to network congestion. Yet. The services are signing up lots of users, so it will be a wait-and-see game about congestion but in our tests both services worked excellently.
The beauty of both is that you really can take the connection with you as you move about. While these aren't exactly roaming services, it does mean you can take the connection from room to room, to different houses or even to work and back.
Personal Broadband offers the iBurst service to ISPs around Australia, with services rolling out across areas in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and the Gold Coast by the time you read this. While you cannot get the service direct from Personal Broadband you can find out available ISPs in your area from their website.
Two modems types are available including a PC Card for your laptop and an external USB/Ethernet modem for your PC. We tested the Ethernet modem which looks remarkably like an ordinary modem.
Setting up the service is remarkably easy - you plug the modem in, install the drivers and small connection application. The software recommends you use the Windows Internet Connection Wizard (which is partially automated by the iBurst install process skipping you ahead to the login stage). This means that every time you wish to log on to iBurst you have to establish a connection.
Pricing is ISP-specific, but rates run from around $150 per month for the basic plans up to $285. There's also a one-off set-up fee of about $50, and the cost of the modem that is around $500 for either the Ethernet/USB or PC Card versions. A quick surf through those offering iBurst saw some introductory offers of $250 for the modem so that's a good saving if you're quick.
Service speeds also range from 256/64kbps (downstream/upstream) to a speedy 1024/256. There are also download limits.
Unlike iBurst, the Unwired modem comes only in Ethernet or USB flavours, but it's about half the size and much more portable. If iBurst is simple to install though, Unwired is almost hands-free. We had the service running with about three mouse clicks. Unlike iBurst, the Unwired connection is up and running once the Ethernet connection has handshaked with the modem when you reboot the PC, so no need to manually establish the connection each time.
While you can order the Unwired service from Unwired directly, they're also reselling the service to other providers which should be available soon.
Currently, Unwired is only available in the Sydney metropolitan area, but once a large user-base is installed they plan on further roll-outs around the country. As it is, Unwired boasts coverage of 90 percent of the Sydney metro area - roughly 1.2 million households.
Pricing for Unwired is slightly more palatable than iBurst, with pricing starting from $34.95 per month going up to $119.95. There's also a one-off $200 connection fee and $195 for a modem delivered the next day. The connection fee can be fully or partially waived if you sign up for set-term contracts.
Unwired is offered at the same speeds as iBurst, with speeds starting at 256/64kbps to 1024/256, and their Unleashed plan offers 10G download cap before the service is shaped back to 64kbps.
If you've any experience with wireless networks you'll know that signal strength is everything. Both iBurst and Unwired require reasonably unblocked access and both function much better when placed near windows. They're not line-of-sight devices by any means, but the closer to a window you can get them the better.
This obviously limits where you can place the modems somewhat, but where Unwired has the advantage is that with an optional battery for the modem ($99) you can squeeze a few more hours of surf time out of it before having to duck back to the mains.
The iBurst modem seemed happier in our test locations at detecting stronger signals and wasn't as finicky about it, but when the Unwired modem got a hold of a signal it doggedly stays with it. The iBurst modem's signal strength bobbed up and down, but in its defence it never once dropped out.
While wireless broadband may be price comparable to wired services, they are at the top-end of the scale. They're expensive technologies to get up and running, but when you factor in the freedom of movement and the freedom from relocation fees should you move house the services are highly palatable.
They're perfect for people for whom ADSL or cable is not an option; you might not have a phone line installed or may not live near enough to an ADSL equipped junction, or you might not live in a cabled area.
Out of the two, we were more impressed with Unwired's simplicity of installation and pricing plans, but iBurst comes a credible second.