For daily commuters, having access to a decent 3G broadband service can make the trip more productive. Road Worrier tests how well Telstra's Next G network performs across all five of Perth's railway lines.
Ever since I travelled from Melbourne to Sydney by train and discovered that Next G is available for rather less than 99% of the distance involved, I've figured that Telstra's coverage claims deserve closer scrutiny. It's not that I'd expect Next G to work literally 100% of the time -- any mobile broadband service is inherently variable, and when you add in tunnels, high speeds of movement and the fact that railway lines don't always go through heavily populated areas, occasional dropouts are to be expected.
However, losing the service for extended periods within 30 minutes of both Melbourne and Sydney seems a tad excessive. Capital cities have the biggest populations, so getting the service right there will please the largest number of people.
With that issue in mind, on a recent trip to Perth I decided to see how well Next G worked when using the TransPerth train network, which runs on five main lines: Armadale, Fremantle, Joondalup, Mandurah and Midland. Over the space of 24 hours, I took return trips on all of those lines and worked on my PC the entire time, testing whether I could maintain a functional Next G connection. (It would obviously be an interesting exercise to run similar tests for the Optus and Vodafone networks, but that was beyond my resources as a single traveller. I also skipped the minor branch line to Thornlie for time reasons, since all of that line apart from the branch is shared with the Armadale route.)
In this context, functional doesn't mean "maximum speed"; it means a connection that maintains a reasonable speed and doesn't drop out for extended periods, meaning that at any point when you need to be online, whether it's to send an email or check something, you can do so. While no-one would do all these journeys at once, commuters would do the return version of one of them every day, and having a working connection can make a long-ish trip (the run from Mandurah to central Perth takes 50 minutes) much more useful.
The network isn't as extensive as Sydney's or Melbourne's, but Perth's train system is pretty impressive. Even on a Sunday, there are trains every 15 minutes for most of the day, and the SmartRider smart card system works very efficiently. The trains themselves are clean and modern with LCD displays in every single one I travelled on (something Sydney hasn't managed yet), and even indicators for which side the platform will be on at each station.
It also turns out that Perth's network is exceptionally well covered by Next G. Over those 10 separate journeys, while I would occasionally get a brief 'No signal' pop-up, there were just a handful of locations where the signal actually dropped out to the point where I was forced to reconnect: around Wellard on the Mandurah line, Joondalup on the Joondalup line, Subiaco on the Fremantle line and Maddington on the Armadale line.
The Subiaco drop-out wasn't entirely unexpected, as the train passes through a brief but obviously solid tunnel. The Midland line didn't give me any full drop-outs at all, and the connection was even maintained in the tunnel between Perth Underground and Esplanade. All the drop-outs happened on both inward and outward journeys, so I'm relatively confident they reflect a real lack of signal
Nonetheless, compared to my experiences in Sydney and Melbourne -- where drop-outs are fairly common on the handful of lines I regularly use -- this was an impressive outcome. Next G remains the most expensive choice for 3G broadband whether you want prepaid or postpaid options, but at least it seems to be delivering a consistent level of service in WA's capital.
If you don't like hearing people proclaim "I'm on the train" on their trip home, that might be bad news. However, Perth residents planning on working during their daily journey look pretty well-covered for now.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman loves the fact that you can ride on trains all day in Perth for only $9. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.