Road Worrier Tests 3G Networks Between Melbourne And Adelaide

Road Worrier Tests 3G Networks Between Melbourne And Adelaide

I’ve already tested how 3G broadband works between on trains Melbourne and Sydney and Sydney and Brisbane. So it was inevitable that I’d have to try a similar trick travelling between Melbourne and Adelaide. Here’s what I learnt.

First things first: while the principles are the same, these are not a set of directly comparable tests. The Melbourne-Sydney route was designed to see how Telstra’s standard Next G service worked. (The answer? Poorer coverage than you’d expect.) The Sydney-Brisbane route tested, in stages, how Telstra’s DC-HSPA+ enhanced Ultimate service worked. (The answer? Often slower than you’d expect for a premium service.)

This time around, I was testing Telstra’s standard Next G service via a USB modem on my PC, and comparing the availability of Optus 3G service on my BlackBerry at the same time. (I abandoned plans to test Vodafone as well after my SIM ran out of credit early in the journey; while Vodafone has said it is improving its network, I suspect it would have been the loser in this test given its relatively poor regional coverage.)

I wasn’t trying to test broadband continuously throughout the journey, as I’ve often done before. In part, this was because both previous tests suggested that this fails with astonishing frequency. I’d also planned to devote the day to NaNoWriMo editing, and I didn’t want consistent interruptions to check Internet connectivity. So I decided to run speed tests for Telstra each time we stopped at a station, which would mean by definition we were in a relatively populated area.

The most surprising lesson this time around, as I foreshadowed with a brief post on Friday, was that in a couple of rural areas, Next G actually proved to be completely unavailable while Optus was offering a functional signal. I think this is worth pointing out because Telstra has very successfully managed to create a perception that it will always win when it comes to regional coverage, and I don’t think that perception always matches with reality when you actually put it to the test.

That doesn’t mean Next G has lousy rural coverage; it means that you always need to check before signing up if access is important to you in a given area. And note that this isn’t an issue about speed as such: it’s an issue about whether you get a signal of any description whatsoever.

That incident aside, the speed results (via in rural locations varied quite widely, as you can see below (click for a larger version):

We didn’t actually stop at Nhill or Bordertown stations (that only happens when passengers are booked to alight or board), so those tests do represent on the move data where a signal was maintained. That wasn’t always going to happen: we’d barely left Dimboola station when the network disappeared completely. The Bordertown results are unusual in the closeness of upload and download speeds, but showed the same pattern when I tried a repeat test.

While the ping times are on the low side, on the whole the speeds didn’t vary hugely from what Telstra offers in city areas. They’re certainly more than enough to allow anyone trying to do essential tasks to get through work, especially if you’re using a smart phone that can deal with intermittent connectivity more intelligently than a PC.

No 3G broadband network is perfect, and that is the most important lesson I’ve learnt this year while roaming the country testing their performance. I started writing the draft of this article on the platform at Sydney’s Central Station — the absolute centre of the nation’s biggest city — and it took 10 minutes to persuade an Optus 3G modem to even work. I wouldn’t want to ever lose the convenience of having wireless broadband, but anyone who thinks it’s a comparable substitute for wired Internet access in terms of reliability is delusional.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman is experiencing mixed feelings about Adelaide public transport. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


  • Hi Angus,

    While not strictly pertinent, do you have your eye on any replacements for your Portege R600? Mine is starting to get a bit long in the tooth but I’m loath to give it up for something less portable, and the R700 just isn’t of the same calibre :(. I’m at a loss.

  • Now do a train test using a NBN connection, yep… thought so zero data going anywhere.

    While speeds are slower you will find that you probably weren’t always on the 3G network and it drops back to Edge etc at times and you’ll have lost connection while swapping towers anyway.

    though getting 170kb a second at the slowest can’t be classed as poor seeing as you are on a train moving at 80 to 120klms and well what else are you expecting to use to get faster speeds, a NBN connection? you can’t use sat connections either as it needs to be a fixed point.

    the NBN won’t offer you anything while moving on a train.

    So now that Telstra and Optus are pretty much only mobile carriers now you can expect them to expand and upgrade their mobile networks pretty fast also prices will probably end up being far cheaper than a NBN connection will ever be.

    • All great arguments if indeed he was moving at 80-100kph!

      If you bothered to read the article at all, you’d have noted that the tests were done whilst STOPPED at stations, except at Bordertown and Dimboola.

  • Angus,

    As someone who uses both Telstra and Optus umts networks on a daily basis there are a couple of things which can materially affect the quality of the connection – by far the most important of these is the addition of a small antenna – in the case of train journeys this antenna can be attached to the top of the laptop screen, or affixed to the train window.

    This will make a vast difference to the average user’s experience.

    I’m even writing this post from one of the Sydney Basin’s most congested semi rural cells on a weeknight – full coverage on an external antenna but still only getting 30-50k throughput due to congestion….. coverage is not always king!!

  • @Zag “Now do a train test using a NBN connection, yep… thought so zero data going anywhere.”

    Wireless and wired are complementary technologies. You need both to really see the mobile/remote worker paradigm take off.

    Think about it for a second. Wireless 3G towers will more than likely utilize NBN as it’s backhaul. This means instead of the average 3mbps, we might actually see the full 21mbps being delivered to the user.

    I can’t wait for the day, where I can have the computers in the house hooked up to the NBN, and 3G dongles for the laptops. Allowing me to surf the net utilizing the home wifi connection on my laptop, then plug in the 3G dongle and switch over to the 3G network seamlessly without any loss of connection.

    The technology for that exists today with Mobile IPv6 and is only waiting for decent 3G coverage/speed and an NBN with willing ISP’s to implement IPv6.

  • “the NBN won’t offer you anything while moving on a train.”

    Neither will a dialup or an ADSL connection, your point? oh wait I’ve got one: can you guarantee me a 1gbps connection with 400mbps upload and awesome low latency on a moving train in say 2018? yeah that’s what I thought…

  • hmm Zag, Zag
    i think you smoked something that didnt agree with you, what has the NBN got to do with testing the 3G networks and train travel?the NBN aint replacing the 3G networks and never will its a different animal altogether.

  • Traveling between Dubbo & Toowoomba I compared Next G with Optus and found Optus to have far superior coverage, with constant coverage except for two hours after Goondiwindi. NextG was up and down like a yo yo with several periods of no signal.

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