Airport 4G Still Taking Off At Variable Speeds

For me, the most exciting aspect of last week’s Telstra 4G announcements was the promise that it would work better in airports. Having given it a try in both Sydney and Melbourne, the network gets a qualified thumbs-up, but there are still some kinks to be ironed out, especially in Victoria.

Long-time Lifehacker readers will be well aware that the relative lack of mobile broadband performance at airports is one of my constant bugbears. There has been speculation that this might be due to regulatory restrictions on network strength, but when I asked Telstra construction officials about this at last week’s launch, the consensus was that the only thing that was different about building a network for an airport was complex building approvals. Ultimately, it just comes down to airports being crowded environments filled with lots of mobile phone users.

Anyway, one of the key selling points for the new Telstra 4G/LTE network is that it has been rolled out in capital city airports, meaning (in theory) much better data speeds while you’re hanging around waiting for a plane. I was in transit between Sydney and Melbourne last week, so I was eager to see if this made a difference in practice.

On the Sydney side of the equation, life went pretty well. On my first test, I got download speeds of 20.51Mbps and uploads at 5.78Mbps. That was definitely a best-case scenario; in repeated testing over a few hours (my plane got delayed because of Melbourne weather issues), I got quite a lot of variation in data speeds. This is to be expected. Over at Gizmodo, Alex has done some CBD testing of Telstra and its Vividwireless rival, which also underlines the point that performance varies a lot. However, I never experienced the complete non-service that has often characterised Next G in the same Qantas Club location, so I’ll class that as a definite win.

The Melbourne scenario turned out to be more complex. I checked the connection while waiting for my bag to be delivered, and the results were pretty underwhelming. Despite being connected via 4G, the first test results, which you can see here, were very much at the low end of the equation, especially for uploads (0.11Mbps). When I tried to perform a second test, the connection dropped out altogether. So far, so Next G at its airport-suckfest worst.

I contacted Telstra to ask why its apparently updated airport connection was actually as bad as ever, and got told it was because I was in the baggage area:

The in-building coverage of Melbourne Airport is performing to expectations. However, the arrivals/baggage area will mainly be served by a macro site. We expect that the macro site will be upgraded with LTE equipment by end next week.

Fair enough, but it does underscore the point that how a telco promotes its network rollout (“airport coverage in all cities now”) is often at odds with the reality (“airport coverage depending on where you’re standing and over the next few days”). Lots of people do check their phones or their laptops while waiting for luggage — I certainly wasn’t the only person with a PC out while waiting — so it’s to be hoped that aspect improves. And given that I did get a 4G connection, the LTE equipment obviously needs some tweaking.

To put this in context, I went back to Melbourne Airport on a separate visit and conducted more tests airside, on passenger level. This time, the results were more acceptable, though again the speeds were notably slower than Sydney despite the airport itself being less crowded.

While I’m uneasily conscious that network performance is likely to degrade as more people take up 4G, for now it has made data performance at Australia’s two busiest airports better, though rather more so in Sydney than in Melbourne. I’ll be keeping an eye on it during my customary romps around the country.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman consumes airport broadband the way most people consume water. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.

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