Off The Rails: The Truth About Wireless Broadband

Not many people would deliberately devote four days to train travel in order to work out just how good Next G broadband coverage is, but it does provide some unusual insights into when 3G broadband services are useful (and when they aren’t). Here’s the five key lessons I’ve learnt during the Off The Rails project.

5. 3G broadband can be great for commuters . . .

. . . but only if you live in the right place. My journey to the Gold Coast and back saw me maintain a connection the entire time. However, travelling north out of Sydney on the first day was much more problematic, with frequent signal dropouts. I know from prior experience that southern Sydney has similar issues, while Perth scrubs up pretty well.

This time around, I was only testing the Next G option, and performance would doubtless be different with Optus or Vodafone (though I’m sceptical that it would be any better). If your regular rail journey is on a well-covered line, then that’s an easy way to make your daily trip more productive. But don’t assume that just because you’re travelling through a relatively populated area that you will have network options.

4. Long-distance trains are not Next G friendly

Having now covered Melbourne through to Brisbane on the XPT, it’s pretty clear: for a very significant portion of that journey, you won’t be getting any Next G signal at all. This makes me rather sceptical of the claim that Next G covers 99% of the population — the trains aren’t travelling through uninhabited country most of that time. (While not all the towns I passed through were on Telstra’s list for enhanced Ultimate service, that should just mean slower speeds, not no speeds at all.)

It’s been suggested a few times that the trains themselves might be the problem, with a combination of speed, carriage design and window construction making them very mobile phone unfriendly. I remain unconvinced on that point, having covered one leg of the journey on both the XPT and a local CityRail train near Maitland. There was plenty of signal to be had in both cases, so it seems to me that the problem is one of network coverage, not the mode of transport I was using at the time.

3. The XPT has really friendly staff

I travel on planes all the time, and most of the staff are friendly enough. But for cheerfulness, helpfulness and all-round customer service, the XPT crew leave them in the dust. I realise travelling by train is often not going to appeal to people because of the time it consumes, but if you’re in holiday mode, those touches can make a big difference.

2. Performance claims need to be treated with caution

I made this point when I tested the Ultimate modem over four states, and the on-train experience confirmed it: while this newest Next G modem is impressively speedy, it never got anywhere near the claimed maximum 20Mbps download speed (which itself is adjusted down from an even higher theoretical maximum). The best-case speed for downloads tends to top out around 12Mbps, and 7Mbps is much more typical.

Don’t get me wrong: those are still impressive and very usable speeds, and options such as watching video streaming or making calls by Skype are definitely possible. What restricts that a little is the unpredictability of the speed you get: even in the same location, it can vary very widely. The flexibility of being able to travel with broadband is hugely useful, but don’t mistake the speed claims for thinking you’re getting an ADSL2+-equivalent service. You’re not.

1. Wireless broadband is a poor substitute for wired broadband

There’s been much political discussion recently about whether these kinds of wireless services would be a better alternative to the fibre-based National Broadband Network. In some regional areas, they’ll undoubtedly be the cheaper option (and are included on the NBN plan for that reason), and if the choice is between some sort of wireless solution and no solution at all, I’m sure people will happily take it. But I’d argue based on my experience that there are four reasons why it’s demonstrably an inferior option:

  • Predicting coverage is really difficult When I wasn’t in motion, I was generally in areas which were supposed to receive enhanced DC-HSPA+ performance. There was no real way of being sure whether this would happen, even on repeat visits to the same location.
  • Performance varies all the time No broadband service provides absolutely consistent performance, but the variation with wireless is much, much greater than with a wired service.
  • The supporting software is terrible. The Telstra-supplied software for the Ultimate was fairly unreliable, often getting stuck in a loop searching for signal or claiming a connection still existed even though there was evidently no connection. That would need to be a much
  • Performance degrades with more users. I was testing a modem that’s currently only available to a handful of business buyers, so the network performance was as good as it’s ever going to get. As demand ramps up, it will inevitably perform with less panache — and panache was not always evident even at this stage.

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