Can 3G Broadband Compete With The NBN In Brunswick?

Can 3G Broadband Compete With The NBN In Brunswick?

When the National Broadband Network (NBN) launched in Kiama, we tested how well 3G broadband worked as a rough measure of how effectively mobile networks could compete with the new fibre alternative. With the first Victorian NBN site following less than a week later in Brunswick, it only seemed sensible to repeat the experiment. What did we learn? That being in the city doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get better 3G performance, and that yet again you only have to move a couple of blocks to see dramatically different levels of performance.

The NBN was officially launched at Brunswick Town Hall by Prime Minister Julia Gillard last Thursday. Lifehacker showed up around 24 hours later for broadband testing. I couldn’t imagine that there’d be much different in terms of announcement content, and I wanted to be able to test at the launch location without the potentially confusing effect of having hundreds of dignitaries with mobile phones all in one spot, something which might well have influenced some results in Kiama.

The NBN rollout in Brunswick is fairly constrained, covering a couple of square kilometres constrained by Lygon Street to the east, Sydney Road to the west, Stewart St to the north and Glenlyon Road to the south. That’s not a large area, but it incorporates a wide range of options, ranging from businesses large and small on the eastern and western boundaries to a mixture of townhouses, standalone residences and units in the middle. According to NBN Co, the rollout passes 2,689 homes, and 1,405 have agreed to a new connection during the initial rollout. (Only 14 of those houses will actually take part in the first round of testing, but all will be able to sign up after the first phase of the trial finishes in September.)

During my visit last Friday, I used the same testing methodology I’d followed in Kiama, running via Telstra on my PC and via separate Android handsets for Optus and Vodafone. Tests were run pretty much simultaneously, allowing for me having to hit three separate start buttons. I followed a roughly Z-shaped pattern from the north-east corner, stopping in six locations and recording two tests for each provider. (Side note: you get some odd looks when you sit down in a public park and pull out a laptop and three mobile phones.)

There are two points I want to make up-front. The first is that I’m not able to hang around Brunswick for a day or more, so I can’t measure what happens at different times of day. With that said, visiting around 11am probably represents a best-case scenario in many respects. It’s not rush hour, so people aren’t returning home, and many people will be at work. However, most businesses are operating and there should be plenty of shoppers with mobile phones.

The second is that while there turned out to be notable differences in performance between each network, in many ways the key question is whether anyone can deliver a consistent experience across the suburb. If a mobile network varies widely across small distances, it’s hard to persuasively sell it as a high-quality broadband option for the masses.

Here are the full test results: unlike Kiama, I’ve quoted both figures rather than averaging them, since there were some notable variations. Low ping times can influence quality of service for time-critical applications such as VOIP or online gaming; download speeds affect general internet content; upload speeds are a factor if you regularly share large files or upload videos. A ! indicates that the test was not able to run.

With Brunswick less than 10 kilometres from the Melbourne CBD and with a range of public transport options, you’d expect reasonable competition from each of the main mobile network providers (Telstra, Optus and Vodafone). In fact, there were some definite problem areas. Vodafone availability disappeared completely for the second test at the corner of Blyth and Lygon — absolutely no signal at all even when I waited five minutes — and Optus required a second test to work in Symons Park. Telstra had particularly low numbers near Thomas and Albert, which might well be due to the presence of a large number of Telstra repair trucks on the same street.

It would be broadly true to say that Telstra had the best performance, followed by Optus and Vodafone (with the latter performing rather worse), but this would ignore some major variations. For instance, all three networks performed best near Blyth and Lygon, even though this was where Vodafone also disappeared altogether on its second test. Optus also outstripped Telstra by a healthy margin in the south-eastern corner.

Quite aside from the implications for the NBN, this provides a solid reminder that mobile network performance can vary hugely even within the same suburb. If you’re considering switching networks, a recommendation from someone two blocks away could well be entirely meaningless. You need data from your own location.

In NBN terms, there are very few parts of Brunswick where you could confidently assume a download speed of 4Mbps, and it’s worth remembering that this probably represents a best-case scenario figure. In technical terms, this doesn’t seem a very challenging area to roll out mobile networks: there aren’t any hills to speak of and no high-rise buildings, and the population density should be high enough to require reasonable coverage. If mobile networks can’t deliver reasonable speeds and suffer from frequent dropouts in this kind of environment, then it seems naive to assume that they’ll be adequate Australia-wide.

Unlike Kiama, Brunswick has the advantage of having a wider range of ADSL options available for its residents, so I’m sure there will continue to be arguments about whether a fibre rollout is needed. However, the mobile data is pretty clear: it’s not a realistic competitor when it comes to speed or availability.


    • Pls also report extent of cable coverage. I am getting ~100mbps Ethernet and ~60Mbps wireless on the Telstra cable using DOCSIS 3.0 Cisco cable modem.
      The real issue re rollout of NBN ( or extensions of cable that should follow that Telstra has been bribed NOT to do) is why rollout where there is HFC cable, when $ 10-20 billion could be devoted to greater needs – where there is scope for cable or extensions there should be self funding, at least for a decade when cable may battle ( bit that’s the time to fiberise cable up to 1 Gig

      • I agree, I’m on Optus’s Speedpack getting 100mb/s theoretically to speedtest, and it stumps me as to why I need Fiber.

        Is Fibre much better than DOCSIS 3.0? Is it worth the extra $20b? Why not just connect Fibre to the homes that don’t have a cable connection, and then perhaps offer a low price connection fee to the houses that want Fibre (but have access to Cable). This to me seems logical as it would keep costs down, but correct me if I’m wrong as I am not a Network Engineer.

        (Just thinking to myself that having 3 cables run through the pits is probably not the best idea, but enhancing the Cable network in some areas instead of installing Fibre still has to be a cheaper option in terms of a performance boost.)

        • Stop being so cheap and poor…. Think of 20 years from now not today…. what you think it will be cheaper later when there is even more to rip up and more ppl that will be affected by the install !!!!

          • You might call it cheap, but personally I think it’s about prioritizing our money. If Cable is considerably cheaper to lay (or if it has already been laid) provide DOCSIS 3.0 capable modems to remote locations, towns and farms and give fiber to the rest of the population. If there is a big need for the extra speeds in these locations upgrade it then.

            Australia’s economy is already heading downhill, my motive is that why not save money on the fibre to remote locations now, and when we are in a more stable economic climate finish the rollout then? It makes no sense to be doing Australia’s largest infrastructure project right when the World is in economic crisis.

      • HFC will not be turned off until at least 2018 on the proposed fibre rollout schedule.

        Will you be happy with 100 Mbps seven years from now?

        Put another way, would you be happy today with your 1500/256 ADSL service that was cutting-edge seven years ago in 2004?

        The NBN is about delivering broadband to 100% of Australians, and ideally having a best-of-breed network at the end of the build in 2021.

        The HFC built in the 1990s will by then include 30-year-old copper to premises, and will be due for replacement anyway.

        • Actually, it makes great sense, according to John Maynard Keynes, and the IMF who have recently started advocating Keynesian economic policies instead of policies following the Austrian school of thought, and other neoclassical doctrines.
          Hayek makes some great points against Keynes, but Climate change, the GFC (+ ongoing tremors), and the inefficient Australian telecommunications industry lend a lot of support to Keynesian ideas and the NBN being a very positive economic measure. I highly recommend you look into these economic theories; you will find a lot in common with neoclassical theories I think!
          Time will tell, as always, but my opinion at the moment is the NBN is economically sound. ALSO: I think fast internet is awesome.

      • One reason to have fibre everywhere is the ongoing maintenance costs. It is much easier and cheaper to maintain 1 system rather than having to cater for 2 (or 3 with copper). You don’t need 2 lots of tech support, spare parts, install expertise etc. I really think this is overlooked when justifying replacing the copper and HFC network.

  • I would be nice to start to see some of these types of tests rolled out to the outer edges of Melbourne. In Sydenham I am lucky to get any 3G data signal from one side of the house to the other. ADSL is still only type 1 due to Telstra locked down the exchange.

  • Really good post Angus. Exceptional work in the field – you really do the best work in IT reporting when most other jounos re-write press releases. If this dosn’t win you an award or some ‘kudos’ (yes, yes, only me and you have to know what that means), then all the better.

    “The rollout passes 2.689 homes, and 1,405 have agreed to a new connection during the initial rollout”

    This figure, among others in Australia is very worrying. It tells you that constant lobbying by right wing shockjocks and murdoch tabloids is working. The NBN scares some households. it’s the new swear word, a symbol of labour spending for Liberal supporting bleeding hearts. It should not be an opt-out. If only we could work out how get these numbers higher.

    I fear if we get poor take up of NBN in trials, we won’t get the data we need and the strong word of mouth.

    Cheers for another great, great post!

    • “This figure, among others in Australia is very worrying.” You can put a lot of that down to the red tape you have to go through to get things like this installed in rental properties. Brunswick has a large number of rental properties a lot of which are governed by body corporate’s. Speaking form experience, trying to get ANYTHING done to a rental property with a landlord, real estate agent and body corporate to deal with is like getting blood from a stone. Something needs to be done about the rental situation (which NBN Co. have already highlighted as an issue), because if you were to go nation wide with it as it stands now you’d have about 50% of rental properties not signing up.

    • I think the 2689/1405 figure is actually very impressive – I would have thought it’d be much less given the mixed demography in the area. Some users don’t care about internet (aged population), some can’t be bothered (those happy with ADSL2 and aren’t early-adopters), some are possibly businesses who want to make sure it works first (article is unclear if business are in that figure), etc, etc..

    • Actually, I think it’s a very high figure, and that they must have worked pretty hard to get it. Given the (as mentioned) demographic of the area, and the cost compared to a good ADSL2+ plan, they’ve done well to massage the figure up to that many.

      • The figure is awful. 48% of homes/premises will be without a fixed connection when the copper gets ‘turned off’. These homes/premises will then either have to rely on mobile for calls and internet or pay to have the nbn connected. They are going to find out first-hand how full of crap Abbott really is and it’ll cost them to get a decent connection back again when it would have been free initially!

        • You’re right, we should expect 100 per cent takeup on a trial. (Oh, sorry, I didn’t realise that spurious reasoning was just an excuse for an ignorant political rant. Just ignore me…)

        • The figure is not awful if you actually know the area and the type of people living there.

          1)Rentals. Lots and lots of rentals. To get any form of work done on them (even needed work like a leaking roof) is sometimes very difficult to do.
          2)Students. Oodles of! The perceived notion of it being more expensive (even though it is not) would make them shy away from even asking landlords/rental agents to allow for the install to the house.
          3)Lots of older couples still in the area. Usually of a migrant background (greek/italian/arab) and really have no idea of any technologies and are never going to care.

          So to get close to 50% sign up in this area is wonderful. Kudos to them for doing so.

          Now, if only the misinformation about pricing will get out of the way then you might find more people will sign up in the next roll out.

          Looking forward to Thornbury being done one day!

    • totally, MASSIVELY agree!

      52% is hopeless, and the more this happens, the more it will provide fuel to the fire for a future coalition government to call the NBN ‘failed’ and a waste of taxpapers money. NBN, please note: you will need a high take-up in these trial areas. Try harder!

      • The answer to take-up is of course legislating “opt-out” rather than “opt-in”. Either system fully respects the inviolable democratic right to stupidity of owners of premises to postpone their connection until they have to pay for one. But opt-out means NBNCo only having to process the modest number of refusals, not the massive number of acceptances.

        • Stupidity was the wrong word to describe the refusers of fibre. Malcolm Turnbull’s mischief has led many good people to be suspicious of the fibre offered them, rather than recognise that allowing the connection to proceed to 100% of premises in the area is the most efficient use of resources to achieve the national infrastructure objective.

    • Aren’t these figures skewed a bit as some people may be on existing plans that they have to pay to get out of. I am not sure on this but I think NBN Co wouldn’t cover the cost of you cancelling your current plan.

  • It would be good if the Federal Opposition members would read the results of some of these tests. It’s also probably worth noting that many of the premises currently using ADSL2+ would be getting less than acceptable results, using the old installed Copper. Maybe then the Opposition could support the NBN and get behind an investment in Australia’s future.

  • My question is when you took the fibre connection down the road, how was your speed? How about you do a fair test which would compare fixed style 3G with fixed fibre. ie invest in an antenna which gets you FULL signal allowing you to truly compare the two options. And a comparison of speed becomes irrelevant if it performs the task required. Your test should be:

    If I browse will 3G be noticeably different to the NBN?

    If I check my emails will it be noticeably different?

    If I watch a video on youtube will it be noticeably different?

    Finally the LEAST important; If I’m downloading is there a noticeable difference?

    • If having a full antenna made that much of a difference, don’t you think Telstra would openly sell full fixed roof-mounted antennae?

      The other question is:
      If 90% of the town was on Fiber would it behave the same way as if 90% of the town was on wireless?

      The answer to that being: No. No it would not.

      Fiber would still be brilliant, wireless would be dead. Air is a pretty dodgy medium compared with Fiber.

        • CMOT i know what ur saying, but I dont mind him using it on this article, because it lures those ‘Wireless is better’ wack jobs into reading the story 🙂

          • Fair enough. I thought those wack jobs had been put back in their box. Even Turnbull’s moved on to wireless being complementary to fibre. The article is fighting a battle that’s already been won. Better to let it die imo.

      • It’s actually the the NBN supports that have floated the notion that people not supporting the NBN are saying wireless is as fast as fibre this has not and never will be the case we argue simply wireless will become good enough for the normal uses and will continue to improve with the requirement of the users. Fibre is a backhaul technology and should stay that way. Where there are new estates or viability yes replace the copper with fibre but this should be done where demand is not in back waters were there is no viability and tax payers will have to foot the bill of this stupid policy for then next hundred years! wireless is and will continue to evolve for our needs… five years ago you could get modem speeds! now in many place you can get adsl equivalent and the place at which it is growing will out strip copper very quickly and the 100Mbps will be reach in the next few years! (there are actually gigabit standards being constructed NOW)

        • Well that’s a lie.

          How else do you think people stating that fiber is an obsolete technology that will be/is being/has been surpassed by wireless technologies should be taken?

          It’s also a lie that wireless is able to provide broadband that’s fast and high quota enough to supply increasing demand to the masses. It isn’t. Air is a crappy medium for this. It’s fine if it’s a relative handful on low quota plans, but for the masses it’s just bad.

  • Paul Budde (ICT guru and policy expert) has an excellent article up today on the serious shortcomings of Turnbull’s plan:'s-second-rate-NBN-plan

    Bottom line: Turnbull and the Coalition want to go back to 2007, when Telstra proposed charging $85 per month for a 512Kb/s service using a limited FTTN (55% of population – major cities only). Basically, this would mean an end to competition, just like going back 20 years to a Telstra absolute monopoly.

    Remember, the NBN is a plan to dramatically increase high speed broadband access for the whole country – the Coalition’s plan is to safeguard Telstra’s profit margin.

  • I live in the NBN zone in Brunswick (Blair St) and am bemused by anyone who thinks 3G isn a realistic option for ubiquitous broadband.

    My telstra 3G connection is lucky to get 1 bar signal strength in my loungeroom… All this 5pm from the city.

    As soon as it’s available, I’m hitching onto the nbn wagon.

  • This is a good article. It outlines the issues of those that argue that fix line services are no longer needed. It would also be really good to perform those same tests between the hours of 5-6pm when people go home. Mobile networks are slogged at these hours. Where I live (Point Cook) Telstra goes from a 3-5Mbits service in the day to slower than dialup by 6pm. It basically becomes unusable.

  • I agree with Mr Schneider! Good comment mate.

    If it does the job speed doesn’t matter. However I need crazy good speeds for my online gaming console and giant game downloads. DCUO I’m looking at you!

  • Have to agree about this article – Malcolm Turnbull you should read it, Tony Abbott you should learn to read and then read it.

    Mobile is great, wait for it…. when not under load. I actually like mobile at Uluru an similar remote locations like Pinba and Woomera – it works well because there are insufficient users to clog it up.

    In Ringwood (MEL) from about 4.00pm to 8.00pm, with a near perfect signal, Telstra is next to unusable. So unless an antennae is going to be locate outside every house and appropriate bandwidth provided, you might just as well run fibre to the home – well gee isn’t that what the government through NBN Co is doing?

    10/10 to the Gillard government for having the guts and foresight to keep going with the NBN. Oh an I am not a gamer, just trying to o email and bit of news browsing.

  • Well, I’m in the Brunswick first release area and went live on NBN yesterday, after much shenanigans, with iPrimus as my ISP. Ran some speed tests on, which uses fairly local servers, and my best result so far is:

    Download 14Mb/s
    Upload 32Mb/s

    It averages out a touch below the above figures.

    Not being an expert, is that good considering fibre’s theoretical max?

    Also, why is upload so much faster when download would generally be the most heavily utilised and where most people would want the highest capability?

    Anyone know how accurate is and if it isn’t are there other options?

    So many questions! Thanks in advance…


Log in to comment on this story!