Road Worrier: Lifehacker Reluctantly Tests XPT Broadband Again

After testing 3G broadband on the Melbourne-Sydney train trip last year and finding it somewhat wanting, I had no intention of repeating the experience. However, this week’s Qantas shenanigans meant that a train looked like the best way to get back to Sydney after a weekend trip, and I figured I’d use the time to see if Telstra’s 4G rollout made much difference. The result was mostly not pretty.

The trip got off to a rollickingly bad start when I got a text from CountryLink on Monday morning telling me that the service would actually be a coach rather than a train between Melbourne and Albury. Having paid for a first-class seat so I could get some work done, getting dumped in a bus was a major productivity sink (I can’t do anything much workwise in coaches or cars, since reading gives me travel sickness, and there’s not enough room to operate even a netbook on your lap). But oh well: when you travel, annoying stuff happens. It did mean I didn’t have any chance to find out whether Next G’s surprisingly thin coverage of rural Victoria had improved.

After hitting Albury, we had a 30-minute wait until the last of the coaches arrived. Not only did that mean I had a wider choice of lunch options by eating in the station cafe, it also meant I could test how well Next G worked while sitting in a stationary train on the platform. The answer turned out to be: very well indeed, since Albury is one of the handful of regional locations which actually has a 4G deployment. Across three speed tests, I got an average ping time of 77ms, download speed of 19.3Mbps and upload speed of 5.14Mbps. That’s considerably better than some airports manage.

As well as being impressively high numbers, that also confirms once again that there’s nothing about the design of the XPT carriage which blocks mobile signal. In the past when I’ve run tests on trains, readers have suggested that the train itself might act as some sort of faraday cage and block the signal. That simply doesn’t seem to be the case.

What was the case last year, and remains the case this year, is that Albury is the exception, not the rule. Once the train got moving, 4G was a distant memory. There are huge swathes of countryside on this journey where there’s barely any mobile signal to be had. Forget 3G: even GPRS is a stretch most of the time.

In the nine-hour stint between Albury and Strathfield, there was only one location where I actually managed to run a complete speed test: Wagga Wagga, which is the biggest population centre en route. For these tests, I was concentrating on areas near stations, which have a bigger population and thus were more likely to be covered, and where speed of the train shouldn’t be an issue. (That said, I know it’s possible to get decent signal on a moving train, presuming there’s signal to be had.

In Henty, The Rock, Junee and Goulburn, I briefly managed to get signal, but it didn’t last long enough to run speed tests. I wasn’t expecting massively high speeds, but the fact I couldn’t stay connected for that long underlines how essentially impractical the service is. In Cootamundra and Yass Junction, I couldn’t scare up a signal even when we were stationary on the platform.

The other thing I noticed was that Telstra’s connectivity software, never a poster child for good design, has actually gotten worse. When a signal wasn’t available, its response was often a suggestion that I should reinsert my card:

On one occasion, it seemed the only network it could detect was Optus:

More consistently, it took a long time to detect the network when it was available. You’d have no chance whatsoever of making a phone call (which admittedly is something of a blessing in a train carriage), but it seems that data usage is also pretty well impossible most of the journey.

Under the circumstances, getting the train was still the best alternative for me — I could easily have been still stuck in Melbourne otherwise. But there’s still no way I’d ever make that journey and assume any sort of connectivity whatsoever. And I can’t help thinking, yet again, that anyone who thinks current wireless technology would be a good alternative to the NBN has never actually tried using it in a rural area.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman really wishes the XPT had power outlets. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.

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