Ultimate Hotspot Shows Telstra Next G Is Feeling The Strain

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.

Device issues

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.)

Like most Wi-Fi hotspots, you don't need specialised software to connect PCs, phones or tablets; you simply connect using your usual Wi-Fi tools and enter the hotspot password, which is handily displayed on the device itself. However, if you want to make any changes to the device — turning off the rather annoying Nintendo-like sound effects, altering the passcode, or making other changes — you need to log in via a browser-based utility. This employs a very old-fashioned interface, complete with JavaScript-like fake pop-ups, and is all but unusable on tablets or mobile phones.

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.

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Comments

    OTOH, the network actually works, which is more than can be said for the likes of Vodafone. I appreciate the testing here, and speed is a factor, but I'll be happy just to have consistently functional data when I jump to Telstra.

      Since the iPhone gained the ability to hotspot I haven't used another form of portable wifi. It doesn't get hot, the data from telstra is cheaper than prepaid rates an I don't come close to using all my monthly data anyway with half a G to spare easily which is more than enough for pc browsing on interstate trips.

      I have a Vodafone Pocket Wifi and works like a charm as well as being a lot cheaper than the Telstra offering. Looking at those test results, I'd place the Vodafone Pocket Wifi at around the same speeds. Not wonderful but certainly a working network. I've only every experienced dropouts in the same places I experience dropouts on other networks, Telstra and Optus included.

    Im moving to Geelong!!

      Just make sure you don't want to use NextG in Geelong on an AFL game day. The network around Skilled Stadium becomes that congested it's unusable!

    I've noticed Optus 3G speeds in the Sydney CBD, North Sydney and at Parramatta all drop through the floor in the last 6 months. It's not uncommon with a full strength HSDPA signal to be getting 12-15k/sec in Parramatta (sometimes on different towers), so there's obviously a serious lack of spectrum to go around.

      Part of the reason is the Optus/Virgin have in the past 18 months begun site sharing infrastructure with Vodafone.

      Optus/Virgin network usability along Sydney's Northern Beaches has been utterly horrible for the last year and a half, both for web browsing as well as voice calls.

      I've recently switched to Telstra and the quality and consistency of both data and voice have improved dramatically. The difference is day and night.

    I work in the Melbourne CBD - 500 Collins St - and myTelstra 3G iPad is basically unusable there unless I can find wifi. I've run the xtreme speedtest app a few times and get slower than dial up speeds - when it can run at all! Half the time the ping is so slow (I've seen 15000ms) that the test times out...

      Thats interesting as I work at the other end of collins with no issues, an average of around 3mbps and a 91 second ping off a HTC desire.

      only issue I have in melbourne is at flinders street station.

    Same thing happens to any distributed network ... Read: NBN!

    It's a little thing called Contention Rate, and it goes a bit like this:

    Just like selling airline seats, bandwidth gets over-sold and fingers get crossed hoping that not everyone will want to use the network to their own fullest capacity at the same time.

    Unless the central node/exchange (the collection point of all those individual subscribers) has MASSIVE capacity, then peak times will see less-than-optimal performance (or in the case of some networks, pretty much useless performance).

    So here's the thing about the NBN ... if you have a small neighbourhood of 100 people who each get sold 100Mbps connection speed, then you need at least 10Gbps (yup GIGA ... as in "A LOT") speed coming through the local exchange.

    Add each of those neighbourhoods up and you're talking about insane bandwidth between cities.

    As Jerry Seinfeld said: Not bloody likely!

    So network designers have to rely on 3 things:

    1. Not everyone will want to use the Interwebs at the same time (hmmm - that'll only work for a short while)

    2. Servers around the world become the limiting factor and can only service users at the combined rate of the server's data centre connection (or its slice thereof)

    3. Local caches (store data at the neighbourhood exchange for a period of time so it only has to travel from there to each person's house)

    Given the forward march towards everyone being connected to live services all the time, none of the 3 main fallbacks will work for very long.

    And that, my friends, is the problem with centralising a decentralised concept like the Internet. By the time you build the infrastructure, its patterns of usage are no longer valid and you have to re-engineer it.

    Communism did the same thing with work effort and economic power. Doesn't work. Never will.

      The effect is disproportionately so on wireless networks, which suggests the alternative proposal to the NBN is even more hosed.

      In terms of capacity management for the NBN though, your argument that there simply won't be enough bandwidth to go around excludes the fact that the 100Mbps link is unlikely to be used at full capacity to begin with, let alone everyone in the neighbourhood downloading at capacity at the same time. Bandwidth capacity calculations are a bit more complicated than you make out.

      Finally, the internet's infrastructure has been pretty damn robust for well over 40 years now. The NBN is simply upgrading the links for higher capacity - without it, we'd be even more up the creek than you argue. Or would you suggest that by not putting it in our usage wouldn't go up?

      Overselling bandwidth is a great way to handle networking, since few people use their full connection speed even at peak times. It only becomes an issue when the oversell ratio is too high. An oversell ratio of 2:1 would leave a lot of bandwidth unused as peak times, whereas a ratio of 20:1 (like a lot of dialup companies did) is far too high. When used propery, it dramatically reduces the cost of the plans while allowing users high burst speeds.

      Secondly, You're making a key mistake with your analysis of the NBN - it's there to replace the last mile connections. ISPs and telcos are really good at putting in backhaul fibre to increase capacity. In your scenario, as people start using a larger percentage of the 100mb lines, the companies will lay more fibre to the exchange...same as they've been doing for the last decade as DSL usage increased exponentially.

      These issues aren't new. According to your working, we should have been having catastrophic problems long before now.

      You don't understand how UMTS mobile networks work.

      All the traffic doesn't necessarily go through the same aggregation point - that would be a very poor design indeed.

      im just glad the NBN didnt get turned into wirless or somthing would be frigen horrible.... Wirless always has been crap

    This is how wireless networks work. Bandwidth is shared across all users. Which is why mobile data will always cost more than wired data it's a scarcer resource

    Bloody excellent post angus. I always knew this would happen, considering what happened to Vodafone when they dropped their prices. Could the same happen to Telstra, now that their prices are very competitive? I would say a resounding YES! It really stinks because this is precisely what happens to wireless networks when you overcrowd them.

    Bring on the NBN. Bring on 4G and bring them all FAST.

    We had an exchange-wide ADSL outage recently.

    Using NextG as a backup doesn't work when half the town decides to do it at the same time. :)

    I would love these speeds listed.

    70% of the time during business hours in Perth the three network just plain doesn't work.

    All I can conclude is that this was hardly a comprehensive test, or the Ultimate device is somehow flawed.

    I almost always see speeds in excess of 4mbps in the Melbourne CBD and 8+ mbps in the suburbs on my lowly HSPA+ phone which tops out at 14.4mbps.

    My connection on Telstra is awesome here in Adelaide. I get roughly around 10-20mbps downstream all the time :)

    Roll on NBN, Roll on...

    It will indeed be great when ubiquitous NBN fibre in built-up areas also means ubiquitous Wi-Fi! Since mobile devices will be out of range of Wi-Fi only about 1% of the time, there will be far less contention for wireless bandwidth. Heck, it might even be as good as 2010 NextG again.

    As for the Ian Exaudi's doubts about the bandwidth to NBN fibred neighbourhoods, Jim Hassell recently explained at the CeBIT NBN Conference that a pre-rollout survey will give an indication of demand per local fibre area.

    Each area can start provisioned with a 2.5 Gbps or 10 Gbps GPON, and as demand rises these units can simply be swapped out - 2.5 up to 10, and soon from 10 up to 40 Gbps - and the smaller units redeployed into new areas of low demand.

    Extra upstream pipes can be lit up as needed to increase delivered aggregate bandwith, and of course Multicast IPTV is an intrinsic part of the design, so when everyone is watching the Wimbledon final, each neighbourhood only needs one stream of the broadcast, so longhaul can grow more slowly than local demand does. It's a great technical design, folks. Read the May 2010 NBN Implementation Study for the nuts and bolts if you're interested.

    Finally, the LTE fixed wireless is billed as 12 Mbps, but shows indications of actually delivering 25 Mbps service (measured at the premises) when it comes online next year, and importantly faster upload speeds.

    Now if we can just get a good amount of it built before this government implodes (if it didn't already do so yesterday, on Carbon Sunday).

    I have had the ultimate wifi for almost 2weeks, it's a sweet device, the best I have tested on hspa+ downlink was 17mbps. The review is bit extreme, batt life is a bit shorter then what i will be expecting but again,ur able to get extended battery for it.   Twitter/porkfatt

    How many folks have used satellite? After two years I wouldn't feel it worthy of any consideration as a last option NBN service (all you fast demanding Metro junkies please try satellite for two months). Satellite is slow and the lag out to the moon and back is the first reason to seek something better. Have a lightning strike and no service for a month plus $1,000 for a new roof top thingo. A lot of rain and ground gets wet, reception totally lost 2-3 weeks without service and $450 to be realigned.

    Country option is wireless; when school is out it maybe old adsl speed if extremely lucky. Page loading often times-out, miss ebay last seconds bids! VOIP has lag and often echo. Should I carry on for the City spoilt folks!

    Whether it be FTTH/FTTB, wireless or any other crap, until ISPs, NBN or any body else including submarine cables are able to provide adequate through band width we should seriously think dial-up because this is where we are heading.

    Satellite after you have experienced it you will agree that it should be deleted as a NBN provisioning option.

    The adhoc and extremely varying speeds in rural areas of wireless currently only guarantees fast dialup speeds.

    I will be extremely disappointed should Metro folks flame me. You should go for a real proper country drive and not a rural city/major town destination. You will appreciate what you have and root to have our crap services improvred.

    PLEASE: All you Metro pampered folks please broaden your experience a little and stop whinging about your [great service] and think of the rest of Australia.

    Thanks folks

      Without trying to sound like a personal attack, pull your head in. Nobody forced you to move to the country so stop complaining.

      We have our own problems that you know nothing about (try and drive down the M5 towards the city in peak hour 5 days a week and then compare it to your lonely country roads). The fact that the percentage of rural satellite users is so minuscule compared to the rest of the broadband useage what would you have happen? All of us front the bill to upgrade your link because you decided that country life is more peaceful?

    I don't think the article was arguing the point of shared bandwidth being a problem, more to the fact of companies (Telstra in this case) upselling customers with promises of a premium service and not actually delivering. What it actually comes down to is transparency, they promise one thing in big bold letters then do an almost complete backflip in the TOC. Which is why almost everyone I know is unhappy with their wireless broadband.

    Though as we have seen recently with the Optus fine, people will only stand for it for so long...

    Which seems to be the same old story in regards to wireless networks in this country.

    I use the Elite Wi-Fi in rural NSW and I have not seen speeds above 3 mbps yet. The reason I went with the Elite is because Virgin (Optus) is so rubbish I would be lucky if I could use 100 MB per month let alone the 3GB thats included with my plan. Now everyone has left Voda I might give it a sneaky go.

    Class action against Optus anyone? Please?

    When you're being signed up for the Telstra Ultimate Device, you're given a brand new sim card that does not come with the device.

    And these days, most of the brand new sim cards come with a pin number.

    The Customer Advisor that served you either couldn't be bothered to take the pin off for you, or did not know how much more difficult it is to change the pin on this device compared to other mobile broadbands.

    With this being said, I had optus and vodafone customers with full bars trying to access some website next to a telstra customer, and even though telstra customer had 4/5 bars instead, the speed was unmatched. Especially vodafone, where despite having full bars, the website just refused to pop up for more than 30 seconds.

    Truth is when WiMAX covered Perth nearly 2 years ago, I got more than this in speed for a fraction of the cost. Vividwireless (for the short time it lasted) produced a city wide WiMAX network with cheap prices and faster speeds than telstra for 20 million. For the first 12mths I was gettin 12Mbs and you can have multiple devices. Unfortunately in the last 6mths Vividwireless has become overcrowded and speeds have dropped.

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