Telstra's DC-HSPA+ upgrade promises extremely high-speed wireless broadband across much of Australia. As ever, capital city business types are the focus for its rollout, but how well does it perform in the rural areas which are suddenly the focus of national politics? Today I headed to Dubbo in the central west of NSW to find out.
Broadband is clearly on people's minds out here. Quite unprompted, my taxi driver offers his own definition of "the Australian version of broadband": someone from the far west of the state driving to Dubbo to see their banker and their insurance agent and do their major shopping once every six months.
Operating at a rather different pace, I'm on a lightning morning visit to Dubbo with the goal of testing just how well the new Ultimate USB device works far away from the CBD environments I usually inhabit (and to which it is initially being marketed). I'm travelling to a lot of places performing that task over the next two weeks, and Dubbo is perhaps the most remote. Despite that, it does appear on Telstra's list of supported locations for DC-HSPA+, so I'm curious to see how well it performs.
But even before the testing begins, it turns out that my taxi driver is something of a communications buff. He tells me where all the main mobile towers in town are located, and offers the bonus advice that if your mobile phone works at the South Dubbo Tavern, it will work pretty much anywhere.
He's also firmly in favour of wireless broadband to get higher speeds. The way he tells it, fibre has already been a failure. "They wired us all up with fibre but they couldn't get the switching right," he says. I don't argue with him (arguing with taxi drivers is never wise unless it's about where you live). I can't help quietly wondering though if this is some confused blending of non-activated fibre being laid and Telstra not letting anyone into the local exchange for ADSL upgrades, as it has been known to do.
What I do know about Dubbo's communications infrastructure is that Telstra's Next G mobile network has recently been upgraded to allow DC-HSPA+, which potentially offers speeds of up to 20Mbps on the Ultimate USB (even if it rarely reaches those in practice). I also know that (unlike many other rural towns) Telstra doesn't restrict its claim about its availability to the Dubbo CBD. So in the surrounds of the Orana Mall on the eastern side of the city, I sit down to see how well the connection works.
The answer to that question is: rather well. In my mall tests (using Speedtest.net), I got a download speed of 6.7Mbps, and upload speed of 1.2Mbps. The connection I got at Dubbo Airport (on the opposite side of town) didn't claim to be dual channel, but still managed 6.4Mbps and 1.95Mbps respectively. In both cases, it also stayed connected without dramas, which is just as important as raw speed.
To put this into perspective: I got better performance from the Ultimate USB modem in a Dubbo shopping mall than I did in my own apartment in Sydney (3.56Mbps download/0.53Mbps upload). I also got better performance than I do from my wired ADSL connection (4.24Mbps upload/0.31Mbps download). And the speeds were slightly better than the Lifehacker offices in the Sydney CBD (6.15Mbps download/0.98Mbps upload), which is likely to be where a lot of these modems initially get sold. In other words: nobody's getting 20Mbps, but Dubbo's doing about as well as everybody else.
A direct comparison isn't entirely fair, of course. I almost certainly have more choices for ADSL2+ providers at my local exchange than most Dubbo residents, so I've got more options to start with. Telstra doesn't claim that the area of Sydney where I live is specifically covered by the enhanced service, and I suspect the aged wiring in my unit block might be a restriction on my connection speeds that's not going away in a hurry.
Nor would it be fair to conclude that this means that wireless in general (or Next G in particular) would solve all our broadband woes cheaply and easily. It's more than likely that I'm the only person utilising the improved network today, given the modems have only just been released and can't be purchased unless you're a large enterprise.
If the same service was on offer to the 30,000-odd people who reside directly in Dubbo, I doubt I'd see the same performance. And that's before taking into account the 100,000+ people in the wider area for whom Dubbo is the commercial centre.
There's no suggestion so far that DC-HSPA+ technology will be extended beyond Telstra's current "50% of the population target", though that could of course change once we have an election result. But there'd certainly need to be a few more towers to get to that goal. My taxi driver unwittingly undermined his own pro-wireless enthusiasm when he acknowledged that fact: "Of course, the average mobile phone can't throw a signal more than about four blocks."
A single-focus modem might do a little better, but there's clearly a lot of work to be done. Nonetheless, the fact that the network performed so well at this stage shows that rural Australia doesn't automatically have to be a broadband backwater. Whether it can manage that in other states and locations is something I'll be testing over the next couple of weeks.