How Well Does 3G Broadband Work In Kiama?

The National Broadband Network (NBN) saw its second mainland site turned on last Friday, and Lifehacker was there to document the event. That trip also presented an opportunity to test just how well current 3G broadband services work in the area, which in turn lets us address the question: is mobile broadband a viable alternative to the NBN?

One of the most common issues raised in discussions of the NBN is whether investment in so much landline fibre cabling makes sense given the growing popularity and use of 3G broadband. If everyone can get online using mobile networks, why are we spending all that money for the NBN?

There are some obvious counter-examples to that argument. Mobile connections still ultimately need landline-based backhaul of some sort, so the fact that everyone is using mobile doesn’t mean we don’t ever need to lay new networks. The lower speeds offered even on “fast” mobile broadband aren’t high enough for medical applications. And as I know from my own previous testing, mobile speeds represent a best-effort number most of the time, unlike the planned NBN model which does guarantee a minimum service speed.

However, the Kiama launch gives us a chance to actually put a real-world face on what is often an entirely theoretical argument. Right now only a handful of customers are actually using the NBN, and that will be the case until at least October. For the rest of Kiama, what’s on offer if you can’t even get a higher-speed ADSL2 connection, a common situation according to local mayor Sandra McCarthy? To find out, I decided to run speed tests on each of the three major mobile networks: Optus, Telstra and Vodafone.

This time around I didn’t attempt to reproduce my often-used model of testing the availability of service while actually travelling down on the train. NBN connections will be to a specific home or office, so I wanted data from fixed locations on the ground.

Additionally, my previous experience on the Kiama train line back in 2009 also suggested that coverage on the line would be poor. Actually, that turned out to be a mistaken assumption: the situation has definitely improved since that time.

While I didn’t run speed tests, I was working on my laptop the whole journey there and back. For the vast majority of that time, I had Next G signal on my computer and Optus signal on my BlackBerry, which is good news for south coast commuters. (I briefly tried using Vodafone on the way back from Kiama and lost all signal very quickly, though the coverage maps suggested I should have been getting OK if not spectacular results.)

In Kiama itself, I ran speed tests for Telstra and Optus on separate Android mobiles running the application, and on my PC connected to a Vodafone Wi-Fi hotspot device. That meant I could run all three tests pretty much in parallel, and repeat them multiple times and average them to get better results.

I conducted those tests in two locations: at the Pavilion where the launch event was held, and at Kiama railway station while waiting for my return train. Time constraints precluded me walking further around town, but even those two locations proved instructive. Here are the results:

So what can we conclude for each carrier? Vodafone isn’t in the race, quite honestly. It did have a signal to offer and surprisingly quick ping times, but its actual speeds were nothing to boast about and would be irritatingly slow for everyday use as the main source of broadband. (That might change in the future as it continues its network rebuild, but I’m concerned with what’s available right now.)

Optus arguably emerges as the most consistent player, with the best results at the Pavilion and solid ping times. Its download speed of 2.25Mbps in the slower Pavilion location is better than you would get on a standard ADSL connection (though potentially not on ADSL2 and certainly not on a minimum-level NBN connection, which offers 12Mbps).

The results for Telstra fall very clearly into two camps. At the Pavilion location, the speeds on offer were fairly similar to Optus (the latter had an edge in upload speed and ping times). At Kiama Railway Station, Telstra’s download performance was dramatically improved, with an average speed of 4.55Mbps (which is, for the record, faster than the ADSL2 connection I can get at home in Sydney).

However, it’s now worth pointing out that the railway station is only a couple of blocks east of the Pavilion. Why were the figures so different across such a short distance? (A similar issue, albeit a little less dramatic, can be seen with Optus as well.)

I can think of two explanations, both of which remind us why mobile broadband isn’t ultimately a substitute for the NBN alternative as it stands. The first is that because I was doing the first set of tests at a launch event where there would have been dozens of other mobile devices around, there was much greater strain placed on the network. You can’t guarantee any kind of minimum or typical speed under those circumstances, which isn’t a great argument for using it as the basis for a widely-used system.

The second explanation is that even though I was only a couple of blocks away for the second tests, I was connecting to an entirely different tower. That underscores even more heavily the inherent unpredictability of mobile networks: you simply don’t know what you’re going to get. It’s an area filled with ifs, buts and maybes. A fibre connection to your premises offers far more certainty — something that most consumers and all businesses are likely to demand.

Ultimately, the argument shouldn’t have to be an either/or scenario. I’m a big fan of mobile broadband, I made heavy use of it while I was in Kiama, and as a frequent traveller I’m grateful for it whenever I encounter it. But when I return to my office or home, I’m even more grateful to have a connection that’s reliable and fast, and I’d be doubly grateful to have a wider range of options available in the future.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman had forgotten how attractive the Kiama train journey is. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.

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