Testing High-Speed Wireless Broadband In Dubbo

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.

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Comments

    At what price? Mum's normal Telstra wireless costs $20 for 200 Mb. I get 20 times that on ADSL. Now we are getting super-fast ? Super Price?

      Price is definitely a key factor (which I'll examine more closely when I've done more testing around the country). But the current entry price is $69 for 6GB on a 24-month contract. Not as cheap as ADSL, but not as ridiculous as those plans have been in the past.

    carpark shot, lol.
    1973 called, they want their Holdens back.

      Thats a VN Commodore - 1988-91, and the one across from it looks like a VP (91-93) - only out by 17-19 years :p

    It's about the same speed I get on my optus connection

    You should be using a sourceforge mirror or bigpond mirror. You can't always pull full speeds with speedtest.net

    Angus I would also test speeds using this site:
    http://www.ozspeedtest.com/ which doesn't suffer the same restrictions as the Speedtest site.

    I guess what you said was true, you only got such speeds because there wouldn't be many if any utilizing the network you were. If you go into the CBD in Sydney and use wireless, you get lower speeds due to the sheer number of other people using the same network.

    It'll be interesting to see what speeds you get in other locations.

    As a resident of Dubbo, I can assure yout he taxi driver was wrong. We havent all been "wired up to fibre". We are stuck firmly on aging copper. Many places dont even get ADSL. We dont have a multitude of choice via competitors DSLAMs. There is Telstra and Optus and thats it. We dont get Naked services or anything like that. Your assumption that the speeds you were getting are high because of a low number of users on Next G would be correct, although at the Mall they could be higher than anywhere else in town due to its distance from the exchange and the lack of decent wired services. Wireless has a bad name in town thanks to some dodgy smaller wireless operators that came in promising the world and delivering very little. Even Next G reliability isnt great in the surrounding areas.
    I get ADSL2 at my house, which isnt far from the Mall, but peak at around 4mbps. Telstra Next G wireless isnt a viable optiion though because it is far too expensive for a family to use. I am also wondering if you ventured into the Mall when you tested.The reception inside is notoriously bad, and you dont have to venture too much further south to get very patchy reception.
    And by the way, its a shame you couldnt have posted a better picture to represent your visit to Dubbo and the Mall carpark that is currently being refurbished. ;)

      I was testing well inside the mall (near the Woolworths -- realistically, no-one uses a laptop for long periods standing up).

      Speedtest.net might not provide an indication of peak speeds, but that's not necessarily unhelpful -- very few people do nothing but access mirror sites :)

    Inside the mall is hideous for reception, the best place is in the garden section of BigW. There are so many reception dead spots in this town :(

    Dubbo is a regional CITY, where most of the residents might be able to get ADSL or ADSL2+ Few will be using NextG as it is too expensive for long term use. Try going to a smaller towns where you only get to choose satellite as the only way to connect to the net.

      I am doing a couple of smaller regional towns over the next fortnight, though my ability to get to really small locations is somewhat constrained by not driving. (That said, they'd only get the basic Next G offering, not the enhanced one.)

    6.7Mbps, and upload speed of 1.2Mbps not too shabby only slightly short of 20Mbps
    Now the real test is to try that on the usual run of the mill 3Mps caped country tower
    That should be interesting boys and girls

    but then this product is not aimed at the whole market just the high density urban dwellers

    Its actually good planning as now that they have increased speeds they have effectively updated there network and there is now no reason to improve planes\Quotas to all of those people that rely on Next G for their family internet access
    One upgrade at a time

    I apologize for being so cynical

    However I do congratulate you on having the decency to actually get out there and see for yourself the real world results instead of just believing what you are told you

    Mobile data is like a public toilet - it is functional in an emergency but you would not want to wake up and crap in one every morning. I enjoy using NextG on an iPad or iPhone on the road but it is always a relief to get home. At least I am the only geek in the village. I can only imagine what the service is like when you are competing with a crowd for a toilet seat.

    In this small rural town I am maxed out on a Telstra wholesale 20Mbps/1Mbps ADSL2+ service. If all the wireless operators and Libs are offering as a visions for the future is a 6Mbps share of an unreliable, high latency service then I would rather emigrate.

    Between gadget and media growth and a young family I reckon 20Mbps is going to look very constrained in a couple of years and nothing but fibre is going to offer more. Interestingly mobile data is starting to offer faster uploads than Telstra's ADSL2+ service. I wish they offered Annex M like Internode but even that isn't going to do for long. It takes forever to send files to cloud services over copper.

    Another Dubbo resident here: We have TPG ADSL2+ available in town via their DLSAM also but the Telstra/Optus ports are all 'full' or 'booked' - that might be what the taxi-driver meant?

    What about latency for VOIP calls etc? Presumably wireless latency is pretty dodgy anyway, but is it far worse in regional areas at distance from the big internet nodes?

    Has anyone actually been to Dubbo?
    ITS FLAT!
    Lets see this same test done in ow I don't know...In the CBD of capital city!

    What a load of crap wireless is!

    It is all very well to say you went to Dubbo and got nearly 7Mbps with your wireless connection but the big question is how many others were using the service at the time??? What I would like to see is an organised test with a couple of hundred others all switching on at the same time and then see how fast your connection speed is!!!

      I do point out in the article that the connection is likely to have benefitted from a lack of contention from other users :)

    I forgot to mention that you should have them all doing something like streaming videos or something similar that actually uses some bandwidth.

    iPhone 3GS one block from south dubbo tavern at 7:30 am on speedtest.Net using telstra nextg. 5026kbps down, 260kbps up. My iPhone is my Internet connection and I see no huge benefit in changing to a wired service anytime soon :)

    How can you say "Up Too 20mbps" yet the best we seen was 5mpbs? False Advertising? Only 1/4th speed?
    I think these "up too" speeds should be put in the same basket as "unlimited plans - but ow we cap you to 64kbps after 12gb".
    The ACCC should set tier speed/pricing for wireless providers. You get 5mbps, you pay for 5mbps. You some how magically get 20mbps in your lab conditions, well then you pay for 20mbps speed.

    I live in Dubbo, but just outside ADSL reach... bugger! We actually rely fully on Telstra wireless broadband which costs us a fortune. 80 dollar for 6GB per month... until app october it was a total disaster, with it hardly working at all. I couldn't make a skype phone call without it cutting out every 2 mins if working at all. Spend days on the phone with the bigpond helpdesk (don't even get me started there). Since october it has improved a lot, with now being able to download, upload, stream videos and skype without any problems... Still wished we had ADSL, but it just isn't to be apparently...

      Simone
      I live outside Hervey Bay and have woeful wireless signal. I just paid about $450 for an new external aerial and someone to install it- only to boost the signal to 2.9 Mbs down and .99 up.
      Before that it was worse.
      You mentioned $80 a month for 6 gig on telstra.. I just logged on to our account to check usage and saw they offer a 7 gig now for only $60. And we received no notification re this- so have been paying more for less for who knows how long.
      I managed to get a credit of a month- $79.95 and changed to the 7gig plan.

      I had a great person who helped me for a change- not only because of the credit, but was understanding and realistic in his advice.

      I am getting a call back from the tech help now to improve the signal- because supposedly we are 'swimming' in signal.

      Also -this column is great Angus. Good on you

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