Telstra likes to boast about the coverage of its Next G broadband network, but it's hard to come up with a practical, real-life way to test just how well that coverage works. Last week I travelled on a train from Brisbane to Townsville armed with a Next G USB modem, a notebook PC and (fortunately on a 24-hour trip) a power outlet in my sleeper cabin. Read on to find out how well the network stood up to the challenge.
Travelling on a train isn't necessarily representative of how you might want to use 3G broadband in practice: if you're thinking of 3G as an alternative to setting up ADSL, or just want a way to work while in a non-Wi-Fi-enabled cafe, then clearly the motion aspect isn't relevant. On the other hand, commuters looking to get some tasks knocked over on the trip to work need to know that their service is up to the task. Travelling over such a long distance also provides a useful real-world test of Telstra's claimed near-universal coverage for Next G. While I took suggestions for testing regimes from readers and tried out as many of those options as possible, I didn't conduct formal speed tests. In practice, having a functioning connection is more important than download or upload speed per se, and Next G never appeared to drop back to GPRS-level speeds when I was working, performing the same tasks I'd regularly do on my wired network in the home office.
The good: coverage and connectivity
While Next G wasn't available throughout the entire trip (no big surprise), in practice it came pretty close. The longest I ever had to wait for signal to return was around five minutes, despite the sparsely populated nature of most of the areas I was travelling through. As I've mentioned above, variations in speed also weren't obvious; if the connection was working, it was working well enough to access email, browse sites and use Ajax applications even when the claimed signal strength was low. While there were quite often brief dropouts, these generally restored themselves without requiring my intervention. As I noted in an earlier post, one particular surprise was how well YouTube worked particularly well, both for uploads and for video viewing. Other video viewing sites produced similar results, and I also got good speeds when downloading from Apple's iTunes store, which often suffers speed degradation even on a proper network connection. Even Skype produced acceptable results.
The bad: software and pricing
Many Web-based applications don't cope well with the occasional brief drop-outs that are part and parcel of the 3G broadband experience. I was actually surprised this didn't turn out to be more of a problem with YouTube; it certainly proved messy when using Movable Type. That isn't a fault of the Next G network as such, but it is something to bear in mind if you largely work within your browser. My single biggest complaint is that the Next G client software is still fairly unstable. The longest dropout I suffered wasn't because of a lack of signal, but because the software chucked a wobbly, necessitating closing it down and removing the modem before reconnecting. It was also rather slow to recognise when a connection had disappeared due to lack of signal; my first indication was usually when I couldn't access a particular site, rather than the on-screen indicators for signal or network connection. On connecting it would often claim no card was inserted, but work the second time around, and sometimes it produced completely random error messages like the one pictured. The other issue to note is that Next G is expensive, but it's easy to consume data. By 6pm on the first day, I'd already been through 500MB, doing pretty much what I would normally do -- and that would have cost me at least $60 on Telstra's current rates. I can't fault the coverage, but it's a shame that achieving that range comes at such a high cost. If you can afford it, it certainly delivers.