Is airport broadband slower in regional areas than in capital cities? And is taking your own 4G dongle a better idea than using what gets supplied in the lounge? Road Worrier decided to find out in a Sydney-versus-Townsville, Telstra-versus-Optus faceoff.
Regular readers will now that testing the speed of airport broadband connections is one of my ongoing obsessions. When Telstra first rolled out its 4G network last year, with airports as a major focus, I was quick to try out how well they worked. I've compared how well free and lounge airport options function in Adelaide.
As someone who also spends a near-unseemly amount of time in airport lounges, I was also quick to record my enthusiasm when Qantas ditched Telstra in favour of Optus for its own offering of free Wi-Fi broadband in its Qantas-club lounges. That rollout has now gone nationwide, which creates an interesting potential comparison: in a given location, are you better off using the free Optus offering or relying on your trusty 4G hotspot?
On a trip from Townsville to Sydney last week, I decided to find out, running a series of speed tests using each option at the lounges in Queensland and NSW respectively. I performed three tests using Speedtest.net in each location for both options, and averaged the results. (Speedtest.net isn't perfect as a testing medium and arguably overestimates functional speeds, but it's a straightforward and widely used basis for comparison.)
In both cases, the lounge I was in wasn't particularly crowded, so I wasn't massively competing for speed with lots of other people. Telstra's 4G network was very much in evidence in Sydney, but in Townsville that wasn't an option and I had to settle for DC-HSPA, which is still reasonably quick. (Telstra does offer 4G LTE connections in parts of Townsville, though in a three-day visit I never actually managed to locate one.) So what were the results?
In Townsville, working with the in-lounge connection was definitely advantageous. The average download speed was 1.9Mbps, upload speed was 1.91Mbps and ping time was 87ms. The Telstra numbers were lower, but not ridiculously so; download speeds were 0.76Mbps, uploads were 0.12Mbps and the ping time was 123ms.
In Sydney, the positions were somewhat reversed. 4G offered a blazing download speed of 26.9Mbps, a good result of 13.74Mbps for uploads and a ping time of 85ms. The Optus-supplied lounge network came in at 5.66Mbps download and 22.66Mbps upload (with a very fast ping time of 18.33ms). While that made it the slower choice download-wise, it's still massively faster than either option could manage in Townsville.
This is, all things considered, unsurprising; while the Townsville area serves 200,000 people, Far North Queensland is unlikely to see the same level of mobile coverage as Sydney any time soon. The speeds available in Townsville were certainly usable, but the difference in the capital city option was definitely noticeable, especially when viewing video. The Townsville Telstra connection also suffered occasional 'freezes'.
These aren't your only travel options, of course; you could equally get 3G data services from Optus or Vodafone. There's free Wi-Fi in T2 at Sydney, and Townsville offers a paid Wi-Fi service (though at $5.60 for half an hour, I wasn't tempted to sample it). The biggest lesson is that, as ever, mobile broadband services vary hugely based on location — so do your research before committing to purchasing one.
Forget data speeds; Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman still finds Townsville weather a bit much to take. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.