Wireless Broadband Shootout: which Australian network should you use?
Which wireless broadband has the best speed and pricing? We've tested the major Australian networks from Telstra to Optus and more, including iPad micro-SIMS and WiFi hotspot modems.
[If you're comparing wireless broadband providers, in the June 2011 issue of PC & Tech Authority we tested every major network. We've republished the group test here so you can compare providers.]
Wireless broadband services are, if the hype is to be believed, about to undergo a transformation. Vodafone’s more or less scrapping its existing network and building anew, Optus has committed to new network towers to improve regional and metropolitan services and Telstra’s expanding its NextG network with the addition of LTE services later this year, although there’s no guarantee that those services will be available in 2011.
It’s a sign of how commonplace regular mobile broadband has become that we’re already looking forward to the next big thing. We tested mobile broadband a year ago and bemoaned the fact that you could either have fast, or cheap, but not really both. The intervening twelve months have seen prices tumble considerably as every carrier raced to accommodate a mix of mobile phone, USB modem, Wi-Fi Hotspots and iPads by upping the quantity of data on offer at every price point.
As an example of how busy the mobile broadband space is, Telstra alone reported that in the half year leading up to December 2010, it took on an additional 505,000 wireless broadband customers. Other carriers haven’t been quite so open with their figures, but there’s no doubting that a significant proportion of the Australian population now relies on wireless broadband to meet their Internet needs.
New customers all need their piece of the broadband pie, but there’s only so much to go around. How have these new customers affected wireless broadband performance? We set out to test Australia’s real-world broadband performance with USB modems, hotspots and an iPad in an effort to work out where the wireless broadband value lies.
How We Tested
If there’s one thing constant about Wireless broadband, it’s that it’s incredibly variable. Between interference sources, quality of signal broadcast, the number of users on a particular mobile cell, what those users are actually doing and the quality of the modem being tested, any network in a given area can display wildly varying performance.
With that in mind, we’ve tried to average things out with our testing regime, which involved requesting the fastest USB modem each provider could supply us with (in Telstra’s complicated case, this became two modems), as well as a personal Wi-Fi Hotspot if they sold such a product, and an iPad microSIM. The USB modems and Hotspots were all tested on the same system, a Toshiba NB550D notebook, while the iPad microSIMs were put into a first generation 64GB 3G iPad.
Testing was performed using Speedtest.net; in the case of the iPad the dedicated Speedtest.Net application was used. Each connection was to the same connection point, except in the case of the App, where no such choice was given.
It’s not enough to simply test in one area and call that an average for a country as wide and variably covered as Australia, so we tested in as many areas as was practical during our test period. Our aim was to cover as many potential situations where a broadband connection could be useful, so our test areas included a coffee shop in the Sydney CBD area, a suburban home in the far northern suburbs of Sydney, a hotel room on Queensland’s Gold coast and two regional areas, both in New South Wales.
The lack of decent coverage in regional areas is a common complaint, so we tested in one large regional area (Coffs Harbour, population approx 26,000) and then a much smaller one a few hours north of there, at Woombah (population approx 730). That gave us a good spread of coverage areas to test with each and every modem, Wi-Fi hotspot and MicroSIM. Each test was run five times in quick succession in each test area to arrive at an average ping, download and upload speed score for each tested device.
Hotspots and MicroSIMs don’t require specifically installed software, but USB modems do, so we’ve also assessed the ease of use of each USB modem’s software offering. We also crunched the numbers on the data allowance and pricing for each carrier, which we’ve broken down into a per-gigabyte price for each plan. Speeds may be variable, but a per-GB price allows us to compare what they should deliver for each plan, irrespective of speed.
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The Future of Broadband
Of late there’s been a great deal of press regarding 4G and LTE technologies in Australian mobile broadband circles. While 4G is obviously a successor to 3G and LTE expands to the strangely non-specific “Long Term Evolution” there’s still a reasonable level of confusion over these technologies and what they’ll mean for broadband users.
Some of the confusion arises from the use of blanket terms rather than specifics – terms that are rather ironically used to attempt to avoid confusion. For example, 3G – as the term is used locally – currently includes Telstra’s 2100MHz UMTS network, the surviving vestiges of CDMA, Telstra’s 800MHz “Next G” network and the UMTS/HSPA offerings from Optus and Vodafone.
So it’s not overly surprising that 4G is being bandied around as a catch-all for any post-3G networks. However, this also encompasses the WiMax offerings of VividWireless, which is nothing like the current mobile carrier offerings.
LTE, the buzzword for much of Telstra and Vodafone’s PR teams of late, is actually (in the strictest sense) not 4G. According to the International Telecommunications union, 4G is reserved for networks capable of delivering speeds of over 1Gb/s, of which LTE is most certainly not capable. LTE – or more correctly LTE 3GPP, a name we suggest you forget immediately, as it’ll just confuse everyone more – can achieve theoretical speeds of 100Mb/s (or up to 300 depending on whom you’re asking).
It’s that “theoretical” that’s the issue here. As any mobile broadband user knows, Telstra might be able to give you 42Mb/s at the moment, but you might need to be camped on top of a cell tower for that to actually happen.
Bandwidth, not speed
In trials last years, Optus demonstrated speeds of 43Mb/s over a test LTE network – greased lightning for Aussie users, but not quite up there with the promised maximum. Vodafone fared slightly better with its tests in Newcastle, managing 74Mb/s at the end of last year. Telstra has combatted this by emphasising the capacity of LTE – more people can share the network without congestion – rather than focussing on raw speeds.
Interestingly, Telstra is also able to offer LTE over its existing spectrum - it’ll use the 1800MHz spectrum that it was already using for voice calls pre-3G. This makes the Telstra rollout of LTE remarkably cheap (by telco standards, at least), using much if its existing infrastructure.
Vodafone too has committed to an LTE rollout as part of its network upgrade – a very definite response to its poor public image in the wake of the Vodafail Debacle. It has partnered with Huawei for the technology behind this and its part of a $1Bn spend to upgrade its overall performance. This rebuild of 5800 sites means that, according the telco, LTE can be turned on with “a flick of a switch”.
What this all means is that some Australians will have access to LTE networks before the end of 2011 (at currently reported rollout timings – your mileage, as always, may vary). What speeds will be achieved and what areas they’ll be operating in remain a thing of mystery, but as always we can expect regional areas to come a distant second in terms of importance.
But speed matters too
According to the jingle, from little things, big things grow, and LTE is just the first step on the road to 4G (or the final step before its arrival depending on how you look at it). After LTE comes LTE Advanced, known as LTE-A or LTE Release 10, another equally baffling name. LTE-A is a true 4G technology and is apparently a very easy upgrade for LTE.
LTE-A will boast download speeds of 1Gb/s and uploads of 500Mb/s, thus opening up mobile devices for HD movie streaming, gaming and much, much more. The question we need to be asking in a country as vast as Australia – and with the slightly skewed pricing on mobile data plans that our telcos insist upon – is this: in a country where 2GB a month can cost $30+, are we in anyway prepared for speeds of 1Gb per second?
MicroSIM or Portable MiFi?
|Telstra's Ultimate Mobile Wi-Fi combines Wi-Fi and 3G |
One area we were keen to test in this roundup was how well the microSIM used in Apple’s iPad line of tablets actually performs. At the time of writing the iPad2 hadn’t gone on sale, so we tested with microSIMs in a first generation 3G capable iPad, using the Speedtest.net App to generate test scores.
The alternative for an iPad (or other Tablet) owner to the microSIM/embedded SIM argument would be any of the many portable Wi-Fi hotspots that carriers offer for connecting up multiple devices. They offer a lot more flexibility, but by and large the data rates – once you’ve used up the bundled data they come with – aren’t that exceptional.
What our tests showed is that in the vast majority of cases, a regular hotspot connection outpaced iPad MicroSIMs, even on the faster networks. There were exceptions to this, but never to as significant a level as the difference in average between the hotspots and the iPad microSIMs generally.
Add in the flexibility that a hotspot offers you, and the fact that the general hotspot price is almost the equivalent of the premium that Apple charges for its 3G-capable iPads, and a hotspot might seem like a very sensible choice.
It’s also feasible to use many Android phones directly as hotspots, and as we were putting this feature together, Apple added the functionality for iPhone 4 users as well.
All this might add up to the conclusion that microSIMs are very poor value indeed, but there’s a sting in the tail for anyone using a hotspot. You’ll pay a lot more for the data you’re going to use. As an example, with a pre-paid budget of $20 on our speed champion Telstra, you’d get an allowance of 250MB, which over a month would only be enough for some light browsing here and there. If the same sum is applied to a microSIM, however, Telstra will give you 1GB of data to play with.
Oddly enough, even if you switch providers, the same rule of four applies. Optus will give you 500MB of data on a postpaid full sized 3G SIM, or 2GB of data on a MicroSIM. Four times the data for the same price is a powerful value add for iPad 3G owners, and while new plans haven’t been announced at the time of writing for iPad2, it doesn’t seem likely that the carriers will change course in any radical way.