NBN Versus 4G Cafe Speed Challenge: We Have A Clear Winner

Yesterday saw the official launch of Australia’s first ‘NBN cafe’, Hungry Birds in Brunswick, Melbourne. With free Wi-Fi on offer for patrons, there was only one thing to do: get myself there for some speed testing (and a very yummy bacon and egg ciabatta). Just how fast can an NBN connection via Wi-Fi be, and how does that compare to using the other obvious high-speed option, Telstra’s 4G mobile broadband service?

While the Thursday event saw communications minister Senator Stephen Conroy rock up and host a three-way video chat with Townsville and Kiama, things are much quieter when I show up on Friday morning. Hungry Birds is a proper independent cafe, nestled away in a side street with a handful of sheltered tables and a small window where you order. The NBN connectivity isn’t a big deal: there’s just a small sign hanging up at the counter saying “Free NBN Wi-Fi”. (Apparently yesterday one of the specials was branded ‘NBN’ as well, but today things are returning to normal.)

When I ask for the Wi-Fi password, I’m given it handwritten on a sheet of paper. “Let us know if you have any problems,” the counter person tells me. “We had Senator Conroy in yesterday and he changed all the settings.” There’s an initial moment where my computer Wi-Fi setup goes awry and I fear that Senator Conroy has been taking lessons in messing up technology from his daughter again, but then it all behaves normally.

I took my usual approach to speed testing: averaging three tests for ping times, download speeds and uploads speeds using Speedtest.net. For ping times, the lower the better; for the other two, the higher the better. I performed the tests using a Wi-Fi connection to the cafe’s NBN service (supplied by iiNet), and then a Wi-Fi connection to my Telstra 4G wireless hotspot. These are the results:

  NBN 4G
Ping 20.67ms 109.33ms
Download 13.39Mbps 6.08Mbps
Upload 13.60Mbps 3.14Mbps

The NBN wins out clearly in every category. Ping times are four times lower; download speeds are double; upload speeds are more than quadruple. There’s a very evident speed advantage.

As I’ve written many times before, this should surprise no-one. But the notion that wireless technologies in general, and 4G LTE in particular, would be a better way to ensure universal broadband connectivity still gets repeated a lot by NBN opponents. Testing both in the same location, it’s clear that the NBN option is much faster. If I was running a cafe, I know which one I’d be choosing to share with customers.

That’s not to say that the 4G results are terrible; they’re certainly faster than the free ADSL-based Wi-Fi you find in many cafes. But they’re not much better than the 3G numbers I recorded in Brunswick when I tested all three mobile networks last year. My hotspot tells me I’m on a 4G network, but you wouldn’t particularly know it from the speeds.

It’s worth pointing out that 4G can produce much higher speeds. When I compared Optus and Telstra’s 4G performance last week in the Hunter Valley, the Telstra service was pushing through much higher numbers than these. That was in a less densely populated area on a weekend.

But the most significant point is this: 4G performance is variable. Performance on a fibre-based network such as the NBN isn’t. Both have their role to play — 4G will continue to be incredibly handy for anyone who travels — but when speed matters and populations are large, fibre wins. Getting a nice coffee and an excellent ciabatta is just an added bonus.

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