Off The Rails Day 1: Software Blues

Welcome to Off The Rails, where I'm venturing along the north coast of NSW on a cheap rail pass to see just how well 3G broadband in general (and Telstra's Next G network in particular) perform on the go and outside capital cities. After the first day, I'm wondering whether the software that drives the process is going to be up to the task.

The Off The Rails project isn't the first time I've tested how well wireless broadband works on a train: I've done it twice between Brisbane and Townsville; once on the Eurostar from London to Paris; around the whole of the Perth railway network; and between Sydney and Melbourne on an XPT. That last test convinced me that Telstra's claims of near-universal Next G coverage were somewhat exaggerated — there's large areas that are clearly populated where it flat-out didn't work at all — and travelling between Sydney and Brisbane is a good way of seeing how widespread that problem is.

That testing also lets me sample a cheap way of getting between the NSW and Queensland capitals: using an East Coast Discovery Pass, which lets you hop on and off the inter-city XPT service as your mood dictates for a fixed cost of $130. The pass is designed for people making a leisurely stroll up the coast, but I'm going to cover the whole journey in just over four days.

I also want to continue the testing of the Ultimate USB modem which I've been trialling in a wide variety of locations across the east coast, from Townsville to Dubbo.

I don't expect that the service will deliver anything like its alleged maximum speed (Telstra doesn't claim that it would in many places I'm visiting), and my testing will focus on usability for VOIP apps like Skype as much as raw speed testing data. Nonetheless, if Telstra's claimed 99% population coverage is accurate, I shouldn't often be without Next G signal. And I've seen some impressively fast speeds in moving vehicles so far, so I know the mere act of being in motion isn't in itself a barrier.

The reality of course is always different, and my first day's travel from Sydney to Newcastle showed up plenty of problems. While I anticipated some potential issues in the area north of Hornsby — it's sparsely populated in places and involves challenging combinations of water, mountains and national parks — I actually managed to lose signal altogether three times between Strathfield and Hornsby, which is still very much suburban Sydney. And losing signal tends to send the Next G software off the rails itself.

In my earlier review, I noted that the software for the Ultimate often appears to believe that there's a functioning IP connection where there isn't, forcing you to disconnect and reconnect. I can now add to that list of woes that when it does lose the signal and actually recognises that there's no network, it often fails to locate it even when it's very evident that 3G should once again be available. (In this respect, it performs worse than its prepaid counterpart.)

For instance, the software got terminally confused trying to reconnect at Gosford — a major population centre which is on Telstra's list of Ultimate-supported locations — and I had to pull the device out to restore order after it continued to maintain there was no signal. However, when I then made a connection after reinserting it, it managed DC-HSPA+ speeds of 11.26Mbps for uploading. That's pretty impressive, but the fact that I had to force the software to remake the connection isn't.

My suspicion that much of the route would be signal-free also proved to be accurate; I don't think there was any stage when I was actually connected for more than 10 minutes, though the randomness of whether it would manage to reconnect makes that a little difficult to assess. To give Telstra its partial due, at every single point where I had no signal, my Optus-connected BlackBerry was equally network-free (and it remained so in several places where Telstra did manage a connection). In Newcastle itself, it's also delivering the goods speed-wise.

Tomorrow, I'm going to venture out into the Hunter for some local testing, before jumping back on the train around lunchtime and heading towards Taree on the mid-North coast, dongle at the ready. Suggestions for things I should see or test are welcome as always in the comments.

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Comments

    "..to send the Next G software off the rails in a very literal way." Really? The software runs on physical rails which it can became dislodged form? Sorry, I'm not trying to be obtuse, It's just a pet hate of mine (and of many others out there).
    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/literal

    Neurosis aside, I can sympathize with the problems of poor drivers/software. It is all well and good to provide product usability claims, specifications and capabilities. However, If the usability and a consistent user experience is hampered by awkward software which doesn't 'just work' the way that consumers expect, then it is all for naught. I'd rather a product/service with half the speed and flawless performance than speed which needs to be hit with a hammer every 5 minutes to work.

    It is also possible that the modem goes into an idle mode when it cant find a signal so as not to waste power looking for signal where there is none. A 'feature' which you may not want or would like a setting for.

    Enjoy your trip.

      @Andrew -- totally fair point, that was a sloppy sentence. I've removed the "literal" bit.

    Ever thought to include the use of an external aerial connection ( presume the next g modem support it) so as to stablise your drop outs. I've found it to be useful when I go regional travelling

      Not an option with the Ultimate. Definitely worth considering for regular regional use on other Telstra devices, but needing to use it in Pennant Hills still feels like a stretch to me.

    I am really surprised that you got data services for only up to 10 minutes at a time. I have used Telstra Next G and an older Telstra supplied Maxon modem between Newcastle and Sydney on the train and the only time it drops out is in the Hawkesbury tunnels, ie for about 10 minutes in total over a 2.5 hour trip. Sorry, but this makes me think that the rest of your findings will be misleading. I have a Virgin/Optus 3G model iphone and it gets fairly good data coverage over the whole trip but not as good aas Telstra.I am not on the Telstra payroll.

      The key point in this context is that the software on the ultimate modem is obviously a major factor -- if it can't get a connection because it's poorly coded, then that's going to impact on the experience. That said, you're the first person I've encountered who has claimed the service on that line is _that_ good -- criticism of its availability is pretty common.

    I travel from North Sydney to Woy Woy daily up the North Shore line trying to get 3G on my iphone and let me tell you, you cant get coverage for most of the way. There's practically nothing once you leave North Sydney station until you hit Chatswood. Then you lose it again as you leave Chatswood and get it only sporadically until Hornsby, where you get a strong signal. Then you get a bit of a signal at Berowra and thats it until Woy Woy. Its a 70 minute trip of which you might get 10 minutes tops of coverage. My carrier is Vodafone. Whats up with that?

    come visit port macquarie, its nice here!

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