Airport Broadband Showdown: Free Vs Paid

Adelaide has that rare thing in Australia: an airport that actually offers free Wi-Fi. But just how much better do you do if you use your own paid-for dongle rather than a free option? I decided to find out.

More accurately, I found myself at Adelaide Airport for a hideously early flight last Sunday morning, and figured that comparing the available options would be a more useful way of passing the time than stuffing my face with toast. Seated in the Qantas lounge, I had three options open to me:

  • Internode’s airport-wide free service, which anyone can use. (Internode has similar offers in Darwin, Rockhampton and Hervey Bay, all of which are on the longish list of Australian airports I have never visited.)
  • The Telstra 4G dongle I was carrying with me. Airports are one of the main target areas for Telstra’s LTE service, so it should run at maximum speed.
  • The free Wi-Fi offered in Qantas Clubs, which is also supplied by Telstra.
  • For each option, I ran four tests using and averaged the results; each connection displayed quite a bit of variation, which is typical of 3G and Wi-Fi options. In all three instances, these are likely to be best-case figures: Adelaide Airport is understandably fairly deserted around 6am on a Sunday morning, so competition for bandwidth is minimal. I’m also an Internode customer, so I didn’t have any session time or download restrictions (which isn’t the case for totally casual users). Perhaps most tellingly, I had no issues whatsoever in connecting to any of the options; in a crowded airport on a Friday afternoon, that often isn’t the case.

    The results

    As you’d expect, the best results came from using Telstra’s 4G dongle. This isn’t surprising; given that the device has only been available for just over a month, competition for 4G bandwidth is inevitably going to be pretty minimal, so close to maximal performance can be expected. But it is worth noting that the results are much better than I saw in Sydney or Melbourne (though the Melbourne results themselves saw an improvement over time).

    While the 4G option is massively faster, you do have to pay for it. At this time of day, Internode was also offering a generally reasonable speed, albeit one which varied quite a bit more across the tests. Nonetheless, it’s more than adequate for browsing and watching video, and the presence of any free option is to be commended.

    The speeds offered by Telstra for use in the Qantas Club (and potentially nearby, though the airport design makes that tricky) are fairly similar to what Internode is offering, but a little higher. For what it’s worth, the speeds are also much better than I’ve seen in international lounges recently. But based on prior experience, this is definitely a figure that would be lower if the lounge was crowded with people.

    The lesson? Firstly, you do get what you pay for. Secondly, if you’re in the Qantas Club, you might as well use the club option rather than the airport freebie; the speed difference isn’t huge, but it is there, and you’ll make life easier for people who don’t have any other choice. (I’d guess the same rule might apply for Virgin, but I didn’t get to test that; if you’ve had experience in the Adelaide Virgin lounge, tell us in the comments.) But if you really want a fast connection, especially for uploads, a paid-for service wins out every time.

    Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman misses the days when the Adelaide Qantas lounge had a printer on every desk. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.

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