Telstra's Next G network is generally held to be the fastest mobile option in Australia. However, my recent testing on the Ultimate high-speed option confirms what many people have been suspecting: as more people sign on, its performance is declining.
Over the past week, I've been testing the Telstra Ultimate Wi-Fi Hotspot (designed to share 3G net connections across multiple devices) in a range of locations around Australia. That device has been on sale to business users since last month, and will go on sale to general consumers on July 19.
Devices which use the 'Ultimate' network can take advantage of dual-channel transmission to access higher download speeds of up to 20Mbps, according to Telstra (compared to 8Mbps on the enhanced 'Elite' services, or 3Mbps on the original standard Next G network). Unsurprisingly, that enhanced speed attracts a higher price tag. But does it deliver the claimed speeds?
When Ultimate modems first rolled out last year, I subjected them to some pretty exhaustive speed testing across four states. My conclusion at the time was that Ultimate very rarely reached anything like the promised 20Mbps, and spent much more time around the 8Mbps level for downloads (with a typical average upload speed of 1.4Mbps and a ping time of 109 milliseconds, using Speedtest.net as the main platform).
In the past week, I've been testing the Ultimate hotspot device in Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne and Geelong. While that isn't identical set of locations to the ones I used last year, it represents a similarly broad geographic spread. The key difference is that when I tested Ultimate last year, hardly anyone could access the network. That meant I was already experiencing best-case performance. With Telstra having added perhaps a million mobile broadband customers since that time, it seemed likely competition for resources would be greater.
That did prove to be the case this time around. Here's a sample of the results I got doing that testing. (Note that while the hotspot can connect multiple devices, for the sake of broad comparison with last year's numbers these results only reflect connections from a single device.)
The average download speed across these numbers is 4.8Mbps, while uploads average 0.7Mbps and the ping time is 97 milliseconds. Every single one of these figures is down on the results I got when testing last year. Even more notably, on only one occasion (in Geelong) did I get a speed result that was better than what the cheaper Elite network would deliver. Performance in the Sydney CBD seemed particularly poor given the coverage the area should receive.
Let's be clear: these are not terrible or unusable speeds. I was able to use both Skype and YouTube easily with these kinds of connections, though both did suffer from occasional jitters. Browsing, email access and file uploading wasn't a problem (at least in terms of speed; the device itself has a few issues, which I'll point out in the next section).
But let's be equally clear: these are worse results than the same network was delivering a year ago, and they don't match up to the promise of premium speed the network claims. Again, this is not surprising. When more people use a mobile network, performance is likely to suffer unless it is constantly being expanded. Telstra has invested significantly in building out Next G, but these numbers reinforce the idea I'm increasingly hearing on Twitter and in reader comments: the speed advantage is not quite what is was.
Of course, this in part can be attributed to the fact that Telstra's overall charges (especially for data) are more reasonable than they used to be. That makes switching to Telstra more attractive — a good result for Telstra in terms of revenue, but not necessarily for customers in terms of performance.
The other point this testing reinforces is that performance on 3G wireless networks is hugely variable. There's a wide range of numbers in this list, and I saw even more performance variation in active use. That's especially a problem if you're relying on 3G for your primary connection: options like video calling can be tricky when the network speed fluctuates wildly.
Those broader problems and network speeds aside, how does the hotspot itself measure up? Like its cheaper prepaid cousin, the Elite Mobile, which Road Worrier reviewed earlier this year, it runs on the ludicrously hot side (so yeah, the name is kinda apt). You wouldn't want to leave it sitting in a shirt pocket for any extended period of time, purely to minimise discomfort.
I had thought that using it in colder winter months might offset that problem, but that wasn't to be. And while there are plenty of circumstances where you can happily sit it on a desk — in a meeting, in your home office, in a hotel room — there are also situations where you wouldn't want to leave it sitting around, such as being on a train or in an airline lounge.
The best bet there would be to put it inside a bag or case, but that has its own challenges. For one thing, you won't necessarily get the best reception that way. More to the point, you'll have to dig it out whenever you need to do any troubleshooting, which is more common than you might think. On two occasions during my testing, I wondered why my network connection had died entirely. It turned out the reason was that the hotspot had simply decided to switch itself off. This wasn't due to it running out of power; it seemed entirely random. Having the device visible when in use thus seems pretty much essential.
My biggest objection, however, is the onboard software. Telstra's plug-in USB dongles have long had issues with software which might charitably be described as "variable", and that heritage has been carried over to this hotspot. (It's presumably no coincidence that all the gear and software comes from the same supplier, Sierra Wireless.)
The one setting you'll almost certainly want to change is the inclusion of a four-digit security PIN, which was switched on by default on the device I reviewed (though apparently this isn't standard, Telstra tells me). Entering this requires logging in via the browser using an administrator password before entering the PIN. Even more annoyingly, the device randomly demands the PIN again at additional times, but gives no clear indication of having done so unless you happen to be on the relevant browser tab. However, until the number is entered, the connection stops working.
To describe the PIN implementation as abysmal would be charitable. I appreciate that some business users would welcome an additional layer of device security, but there's no point when the actual way it is implemented is so poor that the only way to render the device functional in normal use is to switch it off.
I don't want to leave the impression that I think the Ultimate is a terrible device — it does provide a pretty straightforward way to share a 3G Internet connection must of the time — or that the Telstra network is sub-standard or hopelessly compromised. But I do really wonder what additional value is being offered under the "Ultimate" brand with this gear. Right now, the performance doesn't seem notably different to the non-enhanced version, and the business-grade pricing feels like an attempt to make more money rather than offer more service.
Success is always a two-edged sword with 3G networks. The more customers you attract, the bigger the challenge to maintain performance. Telstra has hardly slipped into a Vodafone-like abyss, but the lack of extra oomph evident in the Ultimate shows that maintaining a performance edge is a difficult trick to pull off.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman hasn't yet tested Next G on the back of a motorbike, but it may only be a matter of time. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.