Tasmania has fabulous rivers and rainforests and mountains and conference venues, but when it comes to communications options, the menu is nowhere near as impressive. How did Road Worrier fare when testing out the main mobile networks in Hobart?
Let me first stress that those opening comments aren't just the usual mainland prejudices. Tasmania is undeniably the most disconnected state (the Northern Territory is a territory, WA is isolated and much larger but still filled with mining companies willing to spend up big). According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, just 39% of Tasmanian households have broadband, well below the 52% national average and the lowest figure in the country.
The situation with mobile networks isn't much better. Telstra and Optus both have a reasonable presence, but Vodafone is a strictly GSM affair and 3 doesn't even have a presence. In rural areas, the consensus is that a Blue Tick-endorsed Next G phone is just about the only option. It was this relative lack of options that was foremost in my mind when I planned my trip to Hobart last week for Linux.conf.au 2009.
Normally for Australian trips, I make use of my Vodafone 3G broadband account, which gets me high-speed access without having to pay $20 or so a night for hotel Wi-Fi. I knew that the conference venue itself would be blanketed in free Wi-Fi coverage (excellent work by the volunteer team), but my working day always starts early and often finishes late, and I need connectivity throughout that period. Trying to edit the US Lifehacker feed using GPRS really wasn't going to be a good use of my time.
Fortunately, I convinced Telstra to lend me a Next G modem for use during the week, to see how well Next G performed in practice off the mainland. I'd been pleasantly surprised when I tried a similar test on a train to Townsville last year, and I have to say that the Tasmanian experience was just as positive, with consistently high speeds wherever I tested it in Hobart. My only complaint (as ever) is that the connection manager software can still be flaky at times, but that wasn't frequent enough to make it really problematic.
I also effectively got to test most of the other network options. I gave my Vodafone 3G dongle a couple of test spins, and it gamely maintained a GPRS connection. That would be OK for emergency use, but sub dial-up speeds aren't viable for any kind of long-term online connection. (Yet another reminder of how cloud computing still has a way to go.
As a geeky tech journalist, I was also travelling with two phones: a BlackBerry Bold running on the Optus 3G network, and a Nokia E61 connected to Telstra's 2G network. The BlackBerry tended to oscillate wildly between 3G and GPRS connections, but that's an Optus rather than a Hobart fault: I've had it do the same thing outside the Optus flagship building in North Sydney. The Telstra phone worked nicely for voice calls, but didn't get to see any data action. But they all worked as expected most of the time.
Of course, this was all a very much a best-case scenario: Hobart, as the state capital and most populous city, inevitably has better options than the rest of Tasmania. On the whole, though, the situation could have been much worse -- it was certainly better than my worst imaginings on the topic.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman doesn't plan on using Wi-Fi in a hotel again unless it's free, or there's a really pressing deadline. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.