The Hunter region around Newcastle, just north of Sydney, is the one place in Australia right now where both Optus and Telstra offer high-speed 4G mobile broadband connections. Which carrier offers the fastest speed? Road Worrier tested both providers (and the best available option from Vodafone) to find out.
The 4G Battle
Vodafone is also planning to launch its own 4G network, but not until 2014. However, the Hunter Valley was one of the first areas to see Vodafone’s general network improvements, so the performance in that region should be relatively strong. The key word there is ‘should’: when Vodafone first announced network enhancements in the area last July, my own tests suggested it was still performing quite poorly. But that was almost a year ago, so there should have been scope for improvements.
some armed only with a BlackBerryhigh-speed 3G performance for Telstra around Maitland
Our Testing Methodology
- Newcastle, the centre of the largest population base in the region;
- Maitland, one of the eastern-most points in Optus’ coverage area;
- Hamilton, also near central Newcastle (and a major rail interchange point);
- Wyong, which is about as far south as the service reaches (and also a busy commuter town).
For each provider, I performed three speed tests using Speedtest.net and averaged the results. Speedtest isn’t a perfect service and if anything tends to overestimate performance, but it provides a consistent basis for comparison. Saturday isn’t a peak day for mobile traffic, so these very much represent best-case results. The same computer was used to run all tests. Speedtest measures three figures: ping times (in ms, the lower the better), download speeds (in Mbps, the higher the better) and upload speeds (in Mbps, the higher the better).
4G Wi-Fi hotspot
I travelled between each of these locations by train (and was pleased to hear announcements for quiet carriages on relevant services), then performed the testing on platforms. All the stations are relatively centrally located, and providing services at stations for waiting commuters is an obvious area where companies will want their 4G options to perform well.
doesn’t fail over to 3G
(Note: We didn’t include vividwireless in these tests because the service is now effectively irrelevant after Optus acquired it earlier this year, it never offered coverage in the Hunter area and its general performance has frequently been abysmal.)
Click the table for a larger view
You can see the results for the four locations in the table above. I haven’t averaged the performance to a single figure for each carrier, since that would be meaningless. However, there are clear trends evident in the figures:
- Ping times: Ping times measure basic server responsiveness, and are particularly relevant for voice-based services and gaming. Optus actually has the edge here, but even the worst-case option isn’t a terrible figure.
- Download speeds: When downloading large files or watching videos, this tends to be the relevant figure. Optus’ figures are good; even in the slowest location, its speeds are better than standard ADSL (and at the low end for ADSL2+). However, Telstra outperformed it in every single case, and in some locations by a very substantial margin. Vodafone’s best-case performance of 2.3Mbps (in Newcastle) would be acceptable for basic services, but it clearly isn’t in the race.
- Upload speeds: If you’re sending files (especially video), upload speeds make a big difference. Optus again put in a solid performance, but was still half the speed (or less) of Telstra in every single location.
Because it’s only in trial phase, Optus is in theory the least flexible provider. However, every test location we used had 4G service from Telstra as well, so the comparison of the 4G services is exactly that. That’s not entirely surprising: Telstra announced that it was enhancing its 4G coverage in the Hunter immediately after Optus announced its trial, a move that appears designed to persuade potential customers not to make the switch.
it has never managed to do in the past
The performance in Hamilton and Newcastle is worth contrasting. The two locations are less than 4 kilometres apart, but you wouldn’t know that in the figures: Telstra and Optus scored some of their best results, while Vodafone had its worst performance. This underscores a vital point about 4G (and indeed 3G): performance can vary even in nearby areas, which is one reason that wireless options aren’t ever going to completely displace wired connections. It’s simply too hard to offer any kind of reasonable guarantee.
a year ago
What Have We Learned?
In terms of speeds generally and upload speeds in particular, Telstra is well ahead of Optus — and that’s with a network in active use, not one being trialled ahead of a broader rollout. Speeds on any 4G network will inevitably drop as more users sign up, but Telstra appears to have an advantage even before that happens.
Performance is only one part of the equation. You can’t buy Optus’ 4G service just yet, so it isn’t clear how it will compare in value terms to Telstra. That said, I’d be genuinely surprised if Optus didn’t adopt the same approach as Telstra: not charging extra for 4G provided you have a device that can connect to it. In that scenario, Optus’ slightly lower data charges might seem a worthwhile trade-off for some customers. Telstra provides a high-speed connection, but it certainly makes you pay for it.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman isn’t bitter that 4G is faster than his home ADSL connection. OK, that’s a lie. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.